am in the land of figs. Yellow lemony figs, tiny black figs, lovely wine-colored figs that grow wild in the vineyards here in the Rousillon, French Catalonia. The tradition is that a vintner would always plant an apricot, a peach, and a fig tree among his vines, with roses at the end of the rows to help attract tiny pests away from the ripening grapes.
But figs are not just to be found in vineyards, as you can see them along the back roads, out in the fields, or simply sprouting through the shiest-paved streets of any little town. Someone must monitor these renegade trees or whole towns would shaded by fig trees, along with slippery sidewalks in late August and early September.
I discovered my own personal fig trees years ago; trees that no one seems to notice, much less pick from, and so I do. Last week I harvested kilos of pale green and yellow fruit, and when we were surfeited like the local wild boar who root around under the trees, we feasted on fig tarts, fig preserve, and fig ice cream (odd texture, but very good flavor).
I hate to take away profits from the hard-working market vendors, but figs are free, both in France and in Italy. Some of the best I have ever tasted still grow near the tiny road leading to semi-abandoned artists’ village, Bussana Vecchia in Liguria. We were heading back to Rome at the perfect moment, and we started our eventual picnic with fat yellow figs, thin slices of prosciutto, and a leftover square of the famous Ligurian focaccia. No three-star restaurant could match that exquisite lunch.
A tree in an abandoned vineyard is my second stop on a search for wild fennel flowers, which I dry and use for curries, a pasta sauce with sea scallops, and the fig preserve that goes so well with a nice piece of Manchego or caciota, depending on where one is residing. But almost any semi-hard cheese will be happy to pair up with raw figs just about to turn into jam, or the jam itself.
The figs I pluck from my clandestine tree bearing figs called by my guru gardener/neighbor, les cous de cigne, swan necks, which I misunderstood to be les cous de signora, lady’s neck! When they are ripe they hang off of the tree in a graceful curve from the branch, practically falling into your hands when barely touched. In fact, if I do not get to my tree quickly during the fig season, they fall in great numbers on the ground, to be pecked at once by the local merles or sparrows, thus exposing them to rot faster. I gather dozens off the ground for jam and then simply shake the tree for fresher ones to eat raw.
For a foolproof fig jam, simply put a couple of dozen ripe figs into a heavy pot with a generous cup of water, a half-cup of sugar, a grate of lemon peel, and a pinch of fennel seed if you cannot harvest fresh flowers. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook, covered, for about five minutes. Uncover and check to see if the fruit is caramelizing well. I use a heavy wire whisk to press on the fruit and then scissors to cut up the figs, in the pot, for a finer texture. You may also whiz the whole thing in a food processor or with a hand mixer, but I like to keep some texture to the jam.
This same mixture is delicious as a filling for individual, baked puff pastry tart shells and an easy, quick dessert to boot.
For ice cream, mix two cups of heavy cream, three-quarters of a cup of sugar, two egg yolks, a squeeze of lemon, and a dash of vanilla, and simmer until thickened slightly. Remove the cream from the heat, transfer to the bowl of a food processor or blender, add eight to ten very ripe black figs, and blend until smooth. Freeze in the usual way. I put mine in a plastic container, freeze for an hour, then stir the mixture with a fork to break up the ice crystals, and continue freezing. You may also use yellow figs for this, in which case I add a bit more lemon or lime to the cream.
Uh, oh, from my window I can see a troop of hikers wandering up the path to my abandoned vineyard. I suppose nature’s bounty must be shared, but thank heaven I almost stripped the tree yesterday. All’s fair in love and thievery, but perhaps they’ll find the leaves useful for a sunbath dans le nu. They were good enough for Adam, after all.