Such sweetness is definitely worth a fig

HAPPY EATER

November 10, 1993|By ROB KASPER

Eating a fresh fig is a serious pleasure. The flavor is sweet without being cloying, fruity without being sappy. Feeling a fresh fig roll over your tongue is such a sensual experience that if lawmakers find out about it, they will undoubtedly try to pass laws forbidding it.

Growing figs here is something of a stretch. Fig trees like hot, dry weather, which Maryland doesn't have much of. Moreover, fig trees don't care for cold weather, especially the young ones. So every year when the weather gets cold, young, supple, fig trees, like Hollywood starlets, demand to be wrapped in something warm and comfortable. Fig trees are not so dumb.

A fig tree can also be a big tease. All summer long the fig tree loads up with green fruit. Then just when this tempting fruit is about to turn a delicious, ripe purple, the weather gets cold and the tree fails to deliver the sweet stuff.

That is what happened to me. I got five figs this year. My tree, which actually looks more like a bush, is planted next to where I park my car. So when I arrived home after battling the jerks who change expressway lanes as blithely as Imelda Marcos changed shoes, I would cool down by lifting up fig leaves and checking on the fruit.

I watched as nubs filled out to promising pods. I waited as the green fruit slowly turned a tempting pink, then a dark, decadent purple. The first fig, which was harvested after Labor Day, was extraordinary. It was supercharged with flavor.

I couldn't wait until the next one ripened. And so I hurried things and prematurely plucked a pink fig. It had an OK flavor, but nothing like the seedy pleasure of the first one. After that I grew more patient. And I shared.

I shared figs No. 3 and 4 with my wife and kids. This turned out to be a mistake. It increased the number of eyes watching the fig tree. And, one day, fig No. 5, a plump one, suddenly disappeared.

I checked the ground underneath the fig tree. I checked the sky for hungry birds. Later I learned that the fig had been swiped not by the birds, but by the spouse. This week the arrival of real frost signaled the end of fig-ripening season.

I was downhearted by my meager harvest, so I called my fig tree adviser, Steve Alpern. Alpern operates Ecoscapes, an edible-landscape enterprise, and grows figs in his small Rodgers Forge back yard.

Alpern told me to be patient. He said once a fig tree gets older and its trunk gets fatter, it starts delivering the goods. This year, for instance, while I picked five figs from my young fig, Alpern said his more mature tree presented his family with about 500 figs. Many of them, he said, were eaten before they made it inside his house. But Alpern said enough fruit made it past the hungry harvesters to show up in a fresh fig tart made by his wife, Carolyn.

Julia Poggi also gave me insights into living with fig trees. For the past 40 years or so, a fig tree has stood behind the Poggi family home near the corner of Fawn and Exeter streets in Baltimore's Little Italy neighborhood. The tree is now almost two stories tall. It was planted, she said, by a friend of her father's, Gabriel, a pharmacist known in Little Italy as "the doctor."

For years that tree was the talk of the neighborhood, she said. "People would say, 'The doctor knows how to take care of a fig tree.' " But Ms. Poggi said that while her late father "loved that tree," he had not done anything special to make it grow. It simply flourished.

Maybe, she said, the tree produced such good fruit "because the Good Lord is looking down on it from St. Leo's steeple," referring to a nearby Catholic church. Or, perhaps, it thrived because it was protected from the sting of winter wind by a couple of nearby garages.

She didn't know for sure, but she did know that eating fresh figs from the tree had changed the way her family looked at life. Once her non-Italian in-laws got a taste of fresh figs, she said, they ate like Italians.

And, she said, having a fig tree teaches you to be patient. "In the beginning, as a young tree, it's kind of disappointing. But as time goes by you get a few surprises."

This summer, she said, her tree startled her by producing oversize figs, "as big as oranges." Moreover they arrived in July, a month earlier than usual.

Heartened by these stories, I got ready to cover my young fig tree up for the winter. Fig trees, it turns out, are like many things in Baltimore. They will give you a sweet reward, but you have to hang around for a few years to earn it.

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