Majorcan figs were at the Mercat d’Olivar this week and they will become plentiful between now and mid-September. If you want to try them at their best start now — the season soon zooms to a close and you can easily miss out on them.
There are more than 700 varieties of figs and Majorca grows several of them. They come into season at different times, usually starting in June depending on the weather.
But the best are yet to come — so keep your eyes on the market stalls. This week’s rotgeta and paretjal varieties looked good and were selling at €4.90 a kilo.
Look out for figs from Banyalbufar, which have a history of their own. They came from grafts made by the Arabs using cuttings from trees in Algeria. These figs are known locally as figues bargunyes because they were first grown in the Son Borguny estate.
No one has come up with a way of growing figs all years round, so it is one of the truly seasonal fruits. All lovers of good food count that as a blessing and hope it will stay like that forever more.
Figs are not good travellers, even on the short journey from the market to the kitchen, so out-of-season figs from distant lands are not a common sight: we have to buy them while they’re there.
It is not an exaggeration to say that figs do not travel well between market and your home: they are so delicate that a couple will almost certainly get badly bruised or crushed even on this very short journey. When buying a kilo of figs ask for two half kilos in separate bags. If you buy a kilo in one bag, no matter how careful you are on the way home, a couple at the bottom will invariably end up somewhat squashed.
About 50 years ago a friend had two supermarket bags filled to the brim with figs from the Algaida orchard of a mutual friend.
He was supposed to bring them to me on a Friday evening but forgot to put them in his car: they remained in his office until late on Monday afternoon.
When I finally received them I had never seen so many so many squishy figs and wondered what I could possibly do with them.
As some of them were already reduced to a jam-like state, I thought the best way of using them up would be to convert the lot into jam. I did so and it was the best jam I have ever eaten. At that time there were no commercial fig jams anywhere (not even at Harrods or Fortnum & Mason) so this was going to be a unique treat.
In those days I had an absolutely gigantic cast-iron casserole pot with an enamel lining that was for the making of jams and chutneys on a large scale, although I used it for Middle Eastern and Indian lamb stews and similar dishes.
The making of the fig jam couldn’t have been easier. The figs were simply cut up very roughly and cooked in their own juice — and being extremely overripe, at this stage there was plenty of juice.
I then added 60 per cent of their weight in sugar and stirred in a good amount of lemon juice. The jam was incredibly special and although I gave several jars to the woman who sent me the figs, as well as other friends, I had enough to last me for several months.
When I was stirring the jam I realised I had cut up the figs very roughly and there were some rather large chunks of fruit. I thought that was a mistake and the fruit should have been smaller.
But in fact those oversize pieces of fig gave the jam a great deal of character and helped to make it unique and the best jam I have ever eaten.
Nowadays you see fig jam on the shelves of just about every supermarket but it lacks the rich taste of fruit I achieved and it never has the chunky consistency that made mine so extra special.
If your problem is at the other end of the scale and you have bought or been given underripe figs, it is easy enough to bring them up to full maturity. Put them in a single layer on a large plate or a tray and leave them out in the blazing sun.
Eight hours or so in the hot sun could be enough to ripen them, but if not bring them indoors at sundown and put them back into the sun next morning. Repeat until the are sweet and juicy.
All fruits taste better when eaten straight from the tree and none more so than the fig. But when you pick the fig is important. The best time is in the late afternoon on a warm sunny day in late August or early September.
That is when the sun has slightly dried the flesh under the skin, thus concentrating the sugar content and making the figs taste sweeter than usual.
A fig plucked from the tree first thing in the morning, when the skin is damp with dew, will usually be a watery and tasteless piece of fruit. But by late afternoon it will have a completely different gustatory tale to tell.
As figs put in such a fleeting appearance, and as they are so delicious on their own, most people use them as a dessert fruit. That is certainly the best way to eat them, especially when they are plump, ripe, juicy and sweet.
Fresh figs can also be used for interesting cold and hot dishes that don’t involve a great deal of work. One of the simplest ways of using them is as a starter with very thin slices of Iberian cured ham.
But don’t serve them sliced down the middle with the cut side up — that has become a culinary cliché. A much prettier presentation is make two long cuts into ripe but firm figs without going down to the base.
The wedges can then be gently pulled apart so that the fig resembles a flower. Serve them atop the paper-thin slices of cured ham neatly arranged on a plate.
Fig and cured ham are frequently served together and the following recipe makes a stunning variation on the theme.
You will need: 6 large firm but ripe figs, 12 thin slices of Iberian cured ham, 100 grs gorgonzola, 2 tbsps stock, 50 mls cream, 1 tbsp grated grana padano cheese and finely chopped parsley.
Carefully peel the figs and halve them lengthways. Wrap each half in a slice of ham and arrange on a serving dish. Put the stock into a small saucepan or frying pan, add the crumbled gorgonzola and stir over a low heat until the cheese melts.
Add the cream and the grated cheese, stirring constantly. Season to taste with freshly milled black pepper. When the sauce comes to a simmer, spoon it over the ham-wrapped figs, sprinkle with the chopped parsley and serve immediately. This is a recipe with lovely contrasts of temperatures.
Italian cooks lop off about two centimetres of the stalk end of the figs, stuff them with stuff them with tiny pieces of gorgonzola and bake them at 180ºC for about 10 minutes or until the cheese starts to melt. They are served on a bed of rocket, sprinkled with finely chopped walnuts and lightly sprayed with balsamic vinegar.
Spanish cooks serve fresh figs with roast chicken, quail, partridge or duck. Snip off the tip of the stalk end of firm fresh figs , make two incisions halfway down the fig, gently open them and pour in threads of fresh cream and a pinch of sugar. Bake in a hot oven for 5-7 minutes.
The Niçois have a stuffing for roast chicken that is quite delicious. For a 1.5 kilo chicken you will need: 150 grs round grain rice, 75 grs butter, 150 grs diced unsmoked bacon, 1 peeled medium-sized onion, 15 fresh figs, 300 mls chicken stock, salt and pepper to taste.
Heat 50 grs of the butter in a saucepan, add the finely chopped onion and sauté for five minutes. Stir in the chopped bacon and cook gently for another 10 minutes.
Slice each fig into eight wedges from the stalk end down, add to the saucepan and sauté for another five minutes over a low heat. Add the washed rice and stir carefully until the grains are coated with butter.
Add the boiling stock, season to taste with salt and pepper and bring to the boil. Cover the saucepan with a lid and simmer gently for 12 minutes. Take off the heat and stir in the rest of the butter. When the rice mixture is cold, stuff the chicken and roast in your usual way.
A simple Spanish dessert can be made with figs and cream. The ripe figs are cut and opened out like a flower as described above and arranged on a plate or serving dish. Some cream, sugar to taste, and Cointreau are stirred together until the sugar dissolves. This mixture is drizzled over the figs which are served very cold.
Soft overripe figs can be used to make one of the best fruit salads you will ever eat. Chop the figs and add them and their juices to other fresh fruits of you choice. Be sure to include bananas. Don’t be tempted to add sugar: the natural sweetness of the ripe figs is more than enough. Make the salad an hour or two before you serve it, stirring from time to time.
An extremely simple Majorcan dessert combines fresh figs with almond ice cream. Sweet juicy figs are peeled, diced and served around two scoops of almond ice cream. It’s a delicious combination that most people adore.
Majorcan figs are usually green or purple and sometimes a pretty mixture of the two. There are a huge variety of sizes, colour, shape and taste, so the figs we get here are not exactly like those in other parts of the Med.
If eating together is sexy (and it is when the other person is someone you fancy) then certain foods fall into the same category. I don’t mean the so-called aphrodisiac fare.
There is no food or drink that will increase our libido — unless we think it will turn us on. It’s all in the brain, not in the food.
But some fruits are especially sexy and have a way of opening up our most libidinous thoughts. Of these the most voluptuous, the most suggestive, are the summer fruits.
They are the sexiest partly because of their lascivious exterior shapes and suggestive inner forms, but also because of the sexual associations and folkore that surround them. Most people consider the fig to be the sexiest fruit of all.
The fig tree is the first one mentioned in the Bible and fig leaves sewn together helped to cover the nakedness of Adam and Eve. Because of this story in Genesis, the fig has always had an undeniable air of sexuality.
In some languages, including Mallorquín and Italian, the word for fig means the female genitals. The word created a problem for Italian lexicographers. In the Italian language a tree is usually masculine and its fruit is feminine. So a ‘fico’, Italian for fig tree, should have a fruit called a ‘fica’.
That created a difficult situation for Italian lexicographers because ‘fica’ is a popular name for the female genitals. But they got over that little problem by calling the fruit a ‘fico’, just like the tree. Any foreigner in Italian company who applies the usual tree-fruit rule and calls a fig a ‘fica’ will always raise a laugh.
The word for fig in Mallorquín is also ‘figa’ but that didn’t cause any difficulties for Majorcan lexicographers. They are more down-to-earth than their Italian colleagues — so they didn’t change ´figa’ to ‘figo’.
If you’re wondering why the female genitals are called a fig, slice one in half, lengthways, hold one half vertically between thumb and forefinger and, looking at the fleshy part, gently squeeze the sides. That’s why.