Food of 2018
Is it because when pulled open, they look like the mouth of the demogorgon from Stranger Things? Is it because they are slightly sexual to touch? (The legend being that a ripe one feels like a perfect testicle …) Or is it because, like the avocado, the fruit that went before it as one of the most photographed foods on the planet, there’s an element of jeopardy to buying one: you’re never sure that it’s a good ’un until you get inside it?
The fig is having a moment, which may turn into a permanent place in our hearts and on our plates (as well as our social media feeds). But if your experience is of a dried one, gritty and greyish, or wedged into a rather dry fig roll, the fresh fruit is a very different beast.
In fact, as Nigel Slater informs us in his book Tender: Volume II, it is not a fruit at all, but an “inflorescence, where flowers and seeds have grown together to form one mass”. This pre-ice age Middle Eastern/mediterranean plant has plenty of varieties, from blue-black to pale green, and the season lasts from July until October (although, should you want to jump on the fig trend, Waitrose is selling small Peruvian ones at £4 for six, while Tesco black figs and Asda Grower’s Selection are both four for £2).
Figs are like avocados in more ways than one: they must be handled gently and they don’t respond well to fiddly preparation. (Does anyone really like cooked avos?) But while no one in their right mind would eat the black, gnarly skin of an avo, it’s absolutely disastrous to peel and/or discard the skin of the fig. The gentle chew of the skin yielding to jammy, soft flesh is quite the experience.
What makes the fig favourite for food trend of the year is its photogenic look and its heritage. As the Swiss flavour company Firmenich describes figs, in naming them the flavour of the year, they are “artisanal” and complex – rather like our old friends pomegranates, figs speak of ancient times and a rustic, hand-farmed product that is just exotic enough.
They are at once grainy and smooth, meaty and delicate – a bite into a ripe fig is extremely rewarding because it is more textured than, say, a strawberry or a peach. They are, of course, a favourite with the wellness crew for being packed with nutrients, antioxidants, fibre and their, uh, laxative properties, but don’t let that put you off. Figs are fantastic to eat, not worthy at all. The gritty inside can give you the same culinary hair-shirt effect as chia seeds, but oh so much tastier.
Let’s get back to its good looks
(after all, no food gets to be an Instagram star unless it looks good, like a pert #avocado – 7m Instagram posts – or oozy #eggs, 8.7m). #Figs, at 645,000 and counting, look best either cut halfway down lengthways and squeezed at the waist, to fan out, or sliced thinly with a fruit knife to fan over a tart or a slice of sourdough. Dark purple, milky white and all shades of red from blush to ruby … phwoar!
Figs on toast is a suitably vague title for an endlessly variable preparation. Per person, toast one large slice of dark sourdough bread.
• If you like savoury, crumble some feta cheese on to each slice, top with thinly sliced figs and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and plenty of cracked black pepper, plus a few thyme leaves if you have them. For something more substantial, grill streaky bacon until crisp, whip feta until slightly creamy, then spread on each slice of toast and layer with bacon and sliced fig. Pop back under the grill to allow the figs to blister very slightly.
• If you prefer sweet, spread each slice with ricotta, top with sliced fig and drizzle with honey. Add a few chopped pecans or almonds, if you wish. Place a few dollops of greek yoghurt in a bowl, trim the stem off one or two figs and cut vertically in four to halfway down, then squeeze to fan the sections. Top with drizzled honey or maple syrup, orange zest and some shredded mint leaves.
A blob of creamy sauce on a fig does the same job as a soft poached egg on an avocado – makes it look seductive and enriches an already pretty luxurious flavour. Prepare with either sourdough toast or a handful of salad leaves, depending on your tastes.
• Stir together 250g of very ripe gorgonzola cheese (all blue cheeses go well with figs) with about 120ml of double cream and a teaspoon of white wine vinegar. (I also think white balsamic works really well.) Add more or less cream to give you a dollop-able thickness; don’t overblend. Halve or quarter 2-3 figs for each person, arrange and top each with a scoop of the sauce. Adapted from Nigel Slater’s Tender: Volume II
• For each person, split a couple of figs in half, add a chunk of stilton to the middle and sandwich back together. Wrap in pancetta or prosciutto and grill or fry, turning from time to time until slightly crisp. Or a leaf of hispi cabbage drizzled with a little oil for a vegetarian option. Serve as soon as cool enough to handle. • If you’ve got a few days, wedge small ripe figs into a jar, add a few strips of orange peel, a couple of star anise, a scraped-out vanilla pod if you keep them (it’s well worth keeping them once you’ve used the seeds for, say, ice-cream) and cover with the liqueur of your choice (I go for sloe gin) and leave for a week. Retrieved and sliced over ice-cream or natural yoghurt with a drizzle of the macerating liquid, it makes a fine pudding.
Figs go superbly with dark, gamey meats and what they lose in firm, bright looks they more than make up for in jammy consistency and rich, even sweeter flavour. These recipes serve four.
• For duck, score the skin of each duck breast in a grid pattern to help the fat render, add skin-side down to a cool l frying pan and allow to heat up – the he fat should melt and can be poured d off from time to time. Once the skin n is well coloured and crisp, turn the breasts easts over, fry for three minutes then n add a glassful of good red wine and four quartered figs (more if f small). Allow to bubble away.
After five minutes, remove the duck and allow to rest for a further five minutes while you reduce the sauce; season to taste. e. Slice each breast into about six slices on the diagonal and serve with the sticky figs and their sauce. uce.
• For venison, allow about 750g g cut of loin for each person, season it and sear on each side in a hot pan, transfer to the oven and cook for about 8-10 minutes at 200C/400f/gas mark k 6, for medium. Remove from pan to rest, then add red wine and figs s to pan, bubble and reduce as above. ve. Thickly slice to serve.
If that’s all too much trouble, , puree the fig with balsamic vinegar and a little extra virgin olive oil, warm through and serve with ith roast meats.