Fig – A treasury of delights

Juicy and delicious, the fig (Ficus carica L.) is a distinctive queen of the Mediterranean, its fruit is among the healthiest in the world; and with its many connotations it helps create an ideal summer evening: with a light breeze and view of the sea, you can treat your companion with a bowl of fresh figs – and local brandy of course, as the two matches perfectly. There is something hidden, mighty, beautiful and erotic in a fig. Its little tree, in the beginning, looks like a small stick with a few wild leaves, flourishes and grows and then 'explodes' creating a rich treetop and passionately on stills its gnarled root (even) into stone, opening it up and crushing it. The fig tree is indestructible, it regenerates for years, whether it is with its outgrowth from the roots, continuing its life once the old tree dies, or with its seeds – because a new 'wild tree' can grow out of each of the thousands of tiny seeds every ripe fruit contains. It is well known that a fig tree can even 'eat-up' a house, and if it grows into ruin, it will crush it without mercy… which causes some fear, some laughter but a lot of respect. Whoever happens to pass by a fig tree and sees it happily bearing new early fruits just before the summer, will stop to pick a few… to relish the 'prelude' to the full taste of the late summer fig, ripe in August or September, full of delights and already a little withered up in the tree. The fig symbolises life, peace, welfare and fertility; it is the food of hermits and the sacred tree in myths. The magical and sweet taste of fig – enjoyed by the Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans…: - inspired the ancient civilisations to show it in their earliest art images. Reliefs have been discovered showing fig picking, dating back to 4.000 BC. Nine fossilised fig fruits have been found in the valley of River Jordan, assumably 9.400 years old! This was Cleopatra favourite fruit; in Roman mythology, the she-wolf nursed Romulus and Remus in the shadow of a fig tree; and in the Christian tradition, the fig tree is one of the most frequently mentioned since Adam and Eve, after committing a sin, covered their private parts with fig leaves… wich of course, further stimulated passion, sexual instinct and craving.

The fig tree is considered to be the first fruit tree to be planted as a 'domesticated' fruit – wheat growing has not begun until a thousand years later. The origin of the fig is most probably between Palestine and the South Coast of the Black Sea. It is a decidious tree with a lush treetop, its bark is ash grey, light and smooth, and it is rich with thick milky juice. The leaves are leathery, the new ones are light green and the 'mature' one's dark green colour, with the upper side rough, and fluffy-furry bottom. The buds are ovoid, with long pointed tips. The seed is as tiny as those of a poppy: with them, the fig is reproduced, thanks to birds, taking them to some truly incredible places – from stone walls of a city to palm trees or cliffs by the sea. The seed springs a half-wild fig tree, and its fruits are not particularly tasty. Agriculturally it is reproduced by grafting and planting shoots. What we enjoy as fig fruit, is actually the flower: a group of flowers closed in a little 'pear', fertilising inside. They are single-sex, small and on short stems, and there are three kinds: male with three thrums, female with a pestle, and female sterile. These flowers grow as new fruits, each with a seed in the centre, closed within a 'false' fruit which, once ripe, tastes exquisitely. The fig needs plenty of suns, it can grow in a warm and moderate climate, and besides the Mediterranean, it can grow in similar climates over the world: in Australia, South America, California. In the areas where the fig can take the winter, it does not bear fruits because there – for example in the Netherlands – there is no Blastophaga psenes wasp to pollinate the inside of the flower capsule. The fruits are, depending on the sort, yellow, yellow-green, or purple-blue colour, pear-like and 'fleshy'. They are best consumed while picking as they quickly lose their freshness. In any case, after 24 hours, they become sour and lose their original aroma – even when kept in a refrigerator, and even when they are washed. The fig's placement is limited due to poor storage potential. Therefore its marketability is extremely low comparing to other fruits. Organised purchase and processing are far below the local production and economic capabilities; it is usually dried or processed into jam. The fig tree is an extraordinarily easy-to-handle plant: it literally bears fruits requiring no effort whatsoever – the only thing that needs to be done every spring is 'clean' it by reducing the number of branches, and fertilise it from time to time. However, it is very sensitive to pollution – its the first plant to 'rebel' and vanish. In Europe 'dense' orchards (Californian type) are planted these days, and the fruits are used for seasonal consumption, and for drying. The production of dried figh has lately been reduced due to changes in nutrition habits – fresh fruit consumption is growing, unlike that of dried fruit.

A fig tree produces fruits twice a year: the spring figs are of lower quality and quantity, while the summer ones are much more generous. The leading producers are Turkey, Egypt, Iran and Morroco, and myrrh is considered the best sort. Fresh fig is best served at room temperature when it melts in your mouth like honey. It is often used in cakes, sweet souffles and baked dishes. It is delicious cooked in sweet wine, or oven-baked with apples, or as a side dish to poultry. It goes fabulously with salty foods like sheep or goat cheese, and when crushed onto a peppered toast, it is a real Mediterranean refreshment. It is used to make the famous traditional Sunni brandy – boukha, and 'regular' brandy with dried fig fruits soaked in is called fig - brandy. The fig fruit has a great diet - therapy and nutritional value, and a currative effect on disseases of the stomach, anemia, toothache, swelling, fatigue, cough etc. Besides fresh and dried fruits, fig products are also used – like spread, compote, jelly and juice, a refreshing, nutritious drink, thanks to its easily digestible inver sugars and various enzymes with soothing effects on the walls of the digestive system. In some regions, a special type of cheese is made from the milky juice of a new fig tree. In the 'folk medicine', fig tea is used against the disease of the throat, respiratory organs, liver and bladder. It activates the digestive system without causing diarrhoea. The fig is rich in calcium, iron, magnesium, B6 vitamin and potassium, and above all, it contains a protective pigment for small blood vessels. It has a low content of fat and a high level of fibres – more than any other fruit or vegetable. It has numerous positive effects on health, as both fresh and dried figs are filled with pectin, a soluble fibre which reduces the level of cholesterol in the blood. It also contains tryptophan which helps to sleep well, when the brain uses glucose inducing good circulation. In 100 grams of raw fig, there is 17.5 mg of magnesium which is one of the key guardians of our body from the negative effects of mental stress and a true balm for our nervous system cells. Foods rich in magnesium are recommended in cases of tension and anxious depression. The fig contains fructose too, up to 60%, enabling the brain to think clearer and faster – this is the perfect fuel for the brain. It is a powerful source of energy, especially the dried fig – fresh fruits less since they include 80% of water. We feel full after consuming figs; it keeps us awake, fresh and lucid, and our reactions quick. Finally, to dream of figs means a surprise is ahead; to pick them in our dreams means business success; and to dream of eating fings will bring good fortune. To dream of a fig leaf is a sign that a wish will come true and the belief that a fig protects gamblers and brings them luck has been long known. The fig tree is sacred for the Buddhists because Buddha has had this enlightenment under this tree; while in Kur´an the fig is referred to in several places as the fruit which came from heaven. And of course, women – with the help of magic – can use fig to bewitch their lovers!