Friday, October 1, 2010

Wild Fig Hunt

THIS IS a year of discoveries in Italy, and one of my most recent is the local superabundance of the fig. Ficus, cursory research tells me, is a genus of trees and shrubs with a good 850 species within it. What is of interest to me here is the common fig. With its distinctive big, waxy leaves and stems, it is a common sight in southern and central Italy. The fruit turns up in the UK in grocery shops, especially those run by people with their roots in sunnier latitudes.

These canny shopkeepers have a point. Dried figs may look as though they once hung from miniature billy goats, but their interior is a delight. Lots of seeds are surrounded by an amazing, sweet-and-sour flesh. Removing the moisture from the fruit only concentrates the flavours and sugars. We all should want, as the Christmas carol reminds us, some figgy pudding.

In my Internet quest for pub quiz fodder I discover that the fig is actually a multitude of inverted flower heads, each creating a seed in the damp darkness of the fruit. Far from the show and tell of normal fruit trees in flower, the ficus relies on the stealthy burrowings of egg-laden wasps to pollinate it. This seems to explain the extraordinary short life of fruit on the tree. Our garden contains several figs and I was dismayed by the narrow gap between nice, soft fruit and flabby, rotten, downward-falling one.

Figgy pudding was never my goal. Rather I had my sights set on that elusive delicacy, the fig roll. For some reason this peculiarly appetising biscuit is unavailable in Italy through regular shops. We can find a slightly odd French version for €2.50 a packet, in motorway service stations. Surrounded by fecund figs, I fancied making my own.

The Internet yielded a couple of promising-seeming recepies for fig paste, and feeling terribly scientific I decided to try them both. Having beaten the wasps to a bucket full of figs I divided my spoils into two piles and set to. Method one involved gently heating lemon juice, figs, sugar and cinnamon, until the resulting gloop becomes glazed. Alas, the only thing that glazed was my eyes, as fig soup bubbled discretely away for what seemed like hours. Only then did I notice that this recipe specifies dried figs as a starting point. Damn. A couple of fruitier expletives later I popped to the shop to buy vast quantities of sugar, turned up the heat and added some apple. The resulting jam is lovely.

Method number two was much more successful. For one thing it sounded exciting – ‘pecorino Toscano stagionato with fig paste’ sounds almost like a poem. I have one Rick Tramonto to thank for it, and a reference to it and his surely excellent book, Osteria. Pecorino could be set aside however – it was Rick’s spiced fig paste that I craved. Creation of it was utter simplicity. The figs are baked for a while until “dried and shrunk by about a quarter”. For my version, read: “shrunk and a smidge cremated due to the completely unregulated furnace that is our ancient, rescued-from-the-scrapman Smeg cooker”. A cup of port is boiled with rosemary to kill off the alcohol, reduce and season, then added to the baked figs, anointed with olive oil, salt, pepper and orange zest. A food processor reduces the lot to paste in short order. My version employed red wine and balsamic vinegar in the absence of port, plus a bit of cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg to add Eastern mystique. A hand-held blender did the pasting perfectly well.

Rick advises rolling the paste into parchment paper and refrigerating, so I stuffed the lot into a clean jar. It comes out occasionally to accompany cheese, to be spread on toast or to be used like a pickle alongside savoury dishes. I haven’t quite got round to making fig rolls yet, because a friend derailed the express train of ficusian zeal by bringing a dozen packets back from the UK very recently. However, figs seem to fruit for ages and another crop is teetering on the branches, about to be nabbed by hymenoptera. I’m on a roll, and could be about to make one.

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