Up until last summer, I had never tasted a fresh fig. Sure I had eaten dried figs, fig spread, Fig Newtons but never a fig in its most natural state. They were too expensive, coming from far away places like California or the Mediterranean. I bookmarked it as one of those things I might try someday if I was in the right place at the right time and put it out of mind.
Last August, my relationship to figs drastically changed. I finished school and moved to Italy for six weeks to farm and eat and breathe away from the city. Exchange my free labor on a small organic farm for the freshest, most delicious meals I had ever eaten and a room in a bed and breakfast on a mountainside in Italy? What more could I ask for after a few particularly strenuous and fatiguing years in the urban.
I arrived at San Cassiano Agroturismo in San Potito Sannitico, Italy and was immediately immersed in the cuisine nestled into the foothills of the Matese Mountains. I harvested ripe Roma tomatoes and basil and they turned into a pan sauce with homemade tagliatelle. I collected zucchini and they became zucchini lasagna with a fresh béchamel. Watching the transformation from garden plant, to raw vegetable, to home-cooked meal was miraculous. In the morning we ate bread from the bakery at the end of the road (delivered by Vespa) and marmalades crafted from the fruits in the orchard. Everything became something more delicious than it was before…everything but the fig.
One day I was tasked with collecting dirt from a grove at the bottom of a hill for a project at the top of the hill. I made my way down to inspect the gravel pile and stumbled upon a gathering of trees with vaguely familiar leaves and unidentifiable green fruit.
“Fichi,” one of my “host” brothers and fellow farmers said.
Fig?! I thought to myself. That green bulbous fruit hanging lazily from those clambering branches at the bottom of this dirt pile was a fresh fig? My host brother must have sensed my excitement. He went right up to the tree and plucked a few of the fruits from their branches. He peeled down the sides of the skin and turned the fig over on itself, revealing glistening coral flesh speckled with seeds. Then he handed it to me to taste.
Hands covered in grime, sweat pouring down my face, the Italian August sun beating down with unprecedented intensity, I took my first bite of fresh fig. It was like nothing I had ever tasted before. It was fleshy, chewy, juicy and sweeter than any Nabisco Fig Newton. I was hooked.
For the rest of the summer, I was obsessed with figs. I picked them green, purple, black. I ate them with breakfast and afternoon espresso. I ate them straight off the tree. They never needed dressing up or transformation. Figs, I thought, were best in their raw form.
When I left San Cassiano at the end of the summer, I thought I had left fresh figs for good. I couldn’t possibly afford them in New York and in any case, being shipped from so far away, they wouldn’t be any good. So I settled for dried figs and fig spread and reminisced about what it would be like to eat a fig unadulterated by processing straight from the source.
A year later, I was wondering my neighborhood in Brooklyn. Row houses all around and the chatter of a busy boulevard fading behind me, I reached a portion of the sidewalk splattered with some kind of purple fruit and a smattering of seeds. I looked around and spotted a leaf that I had seen sometime before. When I followed my eyes from the sidewalk, up the chainlink fence and around a trail of leaves to the tree above, I found a fruit in a clambering patch of branches lazily dangling in the summer heat.
Could it be? I thought. Could this be what I think it is?
And it was. All the way on this side of the world, I had found the delight of the Italian countryside. I looked both ways to make sure no one was watching, plucked a fig right from its branches, peeled the skin down the sides and tasted salvation, right in my own backyard.
Buy fresh figs at The Brooklyn Kitchen. We too source them from our gracious neighbor, Marco Centola, and his burgeoning Brooklyn fig tree.