In the Bible, Adam and Eve used fig leaves to cover themselves after the fall. Buddha supposedly gained enlightenment after meditating under a fig tree. Remnants of figs have been discovered in ancient Egyptian tombs. And today? While they’re no longer used to shield our unmentionables or to nourish us in the afterlife, the fruits are as popular as ever. It’s not hard to see why: Fresh figs are delicate, tender, and sinfully sweet. But they’re also special for a few other, lesser-known reasons.
First, a fig isn’t technically a fruit—it’s a collection of inverted flowers. Those soft inner tendrils? They’re tiny blooms. Before its true botanical structure was discovered, the fig tree was considered a miracle plant that didn’t require flowering or pollination to bear fruit (a likely reason for its revered status in ancient cultures). But it does flower—just inside-out—and it is pollinated, but not by any old bee.
Instead, a tiny wasp (one of about 900 species collectively known as “fig wasps”) burrows inside the orb with her cargo of pollen—and the goal of laying eggs. This is a one-way trip for the bug, as her wings are torn off while entering, and it’s a risky one—there’s only a 50-50 chance she’ll land in a male fig and be able to lay her eggs. If she tunnels into a female fig, she has nowhere to lay her eggs and no way to get out, but at least the fig will have received its precious pollen. Once the wasp dies, fig enzymes break down the carcass. (Rest assured: Those crunchy bits inside figs are seeds, not bug parts.)
Figs are in season twice yearly. The first season is brief, just a few weeks in early summer, but the second begins in late summer and runs through autumn. Since the fruits are so delicate (they can split easily and spoil quickly), fresh versions can be tough to find if they aren’t grown locally.
While native to the Mediterranean region, figs are grown commercially in California, Texas, Utah, Oregon, and Washington. They can also be found at farmers’ markets in states with warmer climates (the plants can’t survive subzero temps). If you live in a cooler clime and spot a carton at the store, by all means, grab one—just give it a once-over first: Seek out plump, tender fruits and avoid any that are mushy or have a sour smell.
And, of course, figs—in all their forms—are absolute naturals with cheese. Like honey, another standby partner for curds, figs strike the perfect salty-sweet chord when paired with wedges and wheels, especially creamy fresh and blue varieties. Fig preserves are a cheese plate staple, but fresh figs can offer even more to savor.
Try them in a salad with crumbled Gorgonzola, serve them grilled and drizzled with crème fraîche or vanilla yogurt, or—our favorite—stuff them with cured meat and chèvre, then bake until softened.
Photo Courtesy: Edgieus/Shutterstock.com
Baked Figs with Bacon Chèvre
- 1 cup balsamic vinegar
- 12 fresh figs
- 4 ounces fresh goat cheese room temperature
- 3 tablespoons cooked crumbled bacon plus more to garnish
- Heat oven to 350°F. Heat balsamic vinegar in a small pot over medium heat until simmering. Reduce heat to low and cook until vinegar thickens and can coat the back of a spoon, 10 to 15 minutes. Cool to room temperature (it will continue to thicken while cooling).
- Prepare the figs. Working from top to bottom, slice three-quarters of the way into each fruit, turn the fruit 90 degrees, then slice in the same manner to create an X.
- Whip goat cheese and bacon together with a hand mixer or whisk. Transfer to a pastry bag or a plastic bag with one corner snipped off. Pipe mixture into prepared figs. Arrange stuffed figs on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
- Bake figs until warm, 8 to 10 minutes. Serve drizzled with balsamic glaze and garnished with extra bacon.