The Fresh Fig

Sensual and luscious, the ripe fruit bears almost no resemblance to the chewy dried version that so many people know.

October 16, 2002|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Many Americans have a fixed image when they think of figs: sticky dried fruit stuffed inside a cakelike cookie to make - good ol' Fig Newtons.

Those lucky enough to have sampled a fresh fig while traveling in a Mediterranean country may have an entirely different image. Figs tend to evoke rhapsodic memories of that silky, plump exotic fruit eaten one perfect day in Italy - a taste that has nothing to do with Nabisco.

But now fresh figs are hit- ting mainstream America and changing the image of figs from the cookies stuffed into lunch boxes or treats from far-flung places to that succulent fruit you can buy down the street.

Fresh figs are appearing in chain supermarkets and being showcased on the Food Network. California growers report their shipments to stores have skyrocketed in the past four or five years. They even set up a Web site two years ago - www.calfreshfigs.com - because so many people were asking about fresh figs and recipes.

"It seems like the light bulb has come on," said George W. Kragie, president of Western Fresh Marketing, a Los Osos, Calif., company that represents fig growers. He attributes the spike in the fruit's popularity to celebrity chefs, such as Emeril Lagasse and Martha Stewart, featuring fresh figs.

When Kragie started his business in 1994, he was selling about 240,000 pounds of fresh figs a year. This year, he said, he is on track to sell 3.5 million pounds. "All the recipes and people talking about figs, it just kind of snowballed. It's feeding on itself," said Kragie, who sells to such stores as Giant Foods, Stop-and-Shop and Whole Foods Market. Prices range from $2.50 to $3.99 a pint at local stores.

At Whole Foods Market in Mount Washington, sales have doubled in the past year to 48 pints a day during the season, according to Moses Rivera, the produce manager.

For fig aficionados, it's a welcome trend.

"If you can get figs at the IGA in Kent, [Conn.], there must have been a revolution," said Maggie Stearns, author of The Hay Day Cookbook: Menus and Fresh Cooking Ideas From the Fabulous Hay Day Country Farm Markets (Atheneum, 1986, $12), which centers on cooking with fresh fruit and vegetables.

Stearns, like many cooks, says probably the best way to eat figs is right off the tree, or out of the box. They can be wrapped in prosciutto and grilled (you can also skip the grilling) or served with a dollop of mascarpone or creme fraiche. Just snap the small stem off. For a tasty dessert, dip the sliced side of fig halves in sugar and broil until sugar is bubbling, remove and serve with ice cream.

Their lush texture and rich, sweet taste always make an impression.

"They do make you think of sitting under a grape arbor, having prosciutto and a bottle of wine," Stearns said. "They are very ... mythic and luxurious."

Chefs say figs have a strong enough flavor to easily carry a leading role, but they also do well in the supporting cast.

At Le Bec-Fin, Philadelphia's premier French restaurant, executive chef Daniel Stern says that figs are perfect for sweet and savory combinations. Because of the fig's sweetness, it pairs well with the sharpness of blue or Roquefort cheese or the tartness of balsamic vinegar.

This summer, on the menu he had sauteed foie gras with fig-and-hazelnut compote and Roquefort-stuffed fig.

"For some people, dried figs is the only way they know them, and to see them fresh, it's like a totally different fruit," Stern said.

Fresh figs traditionally have a lightening-fast season - from June through August and then again in the early fall, ending around October. Figs ripen and dry on the tree so until the demand for the fresh fruit soared, most growers found it more profitable to simply sell the less-perishable dried figs.

Now California growers are trying to extend their production season by growing them in different climates throughout the state and experimenting with new varieties. Figs thrive in hot, dry conditions, so trees do best in California desert country around Fresno, where most of the figs come from. But trees are now planted all the way from Southern California to the Oregon border.

"People would get a season or two of fresh figs, and then they would go away," said grower Richard DeBenedetto, owner of the Fresno, Calif.-based DeBenedetto Orchards. "Soon we're going to be in a position where there will be figs on the shelf 12 months a year."

His sales have quadrupled in the past three years, to 1 million pounds.

"They look good, they taste good and they are good for you. That's a pretty good combination," DeBenedetto said.

While fresh figs may be a new American phenomenon, the fruit has a storied history that dates back centuries.

In the ancient Greek city of Attica, the city's ruler, Solon (639-559 B.C.), forbade the exportation of figs, saying that they must be preserved only for his people. Legend has it that Cleopatra killed herself by having a poisonous snake hidden in a bowl of fresh figs delivered to her jail cell.

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