Brown Turkey, Adriatic, Black Genoa, Gross Longue Vert, Brunoro Black, French Sugar, San Brunswick, Mrs Williams…..all different species of the delicious fig fruit. (One of us is actually, to some, a Mrs Williams. So this species - dark, sometimes purple, fruit with rich red flesh - is a particular interest, but elusive.)
There is a fig tree down the road from us, currently groaning under the weight of its fruit. It’s a real reminder of the short, but rewarding, season of the fresh fig, and a reminder to find New Zealand’s fig growers. Get your hands on some now, if you can. There’s plenty to know about them, and more to do with them.
An ancient fruit
Figs were one of the first plants ever cultivated in the world, in the Mediterranean - we have read, Syria - over 4,000 years ago. (Think of the story of Adam and Eve: their use of its leaves ensured eternal notoriety for the fig tree.) To ancient travellers, the fruit of the fig was of special value as it could be dried, meaning it could be carried long distances and stored. Figs have since spread and are now grown in countries as diverse as Italy, Turkey, California, Argentina, and Australia.
And, of course, there are delicious figs here. Commercial plantings have spread to New Zealand, relatively recently, although the fruit has been in home gardens since early settler days. With their Mediterranean origin, our local climate for growing them is marginal. Fig trees dislike frost. So you go looking for them in temperate climates: in parts of New Zealand, we have that climate.
The season here
Our New Zealand fig season starts around mid-February, and lasts until around late April, in total only around 10 weeks. During that limited season, figs can be difficult to lay your hands on. To start with, the crops here are not large. And, added to this, there is big export demand. So a lot of our crop heads offshore.
There are, we understand, four main types of figs, with different pollination requirements. (Figs are not truly fruits, but masses of inverted flowers and seeds pollinated by a species of tiny symbiotic wasps.) And then (within each type) there exist many cultivated varieties, classified by skin and flesh colour, and fruit shape. One classification refers to 627 named varieties. Some have sugary white or yellow green flesh, some purple red. Some are pear or egg shaped, some rounded. That’s where the delightful names, Brown Turkey, Mrs Williams and more, come in.
Figs are best eaten straight away. They have a short shelf-life, and are best picked once just ripe. When choosing fresh figs, select those which are plump and tender with a rich, deep colour. If you do store them, refrigerate, in a brown paper bag, where they will stay fresh for a few days.
And make sure you enjoy them fresh, in their limited season. Some of the fig growers we know are Te Mata Figs at Havelock North, in the Hawke’s Bay (online shopping and delivery through New Zealand) and Taihiki Orchards at Waiuku, just south of Auckland.
And plenty to do with them
You might enjoy the classic fig combinations: figs, mozzarella or blue, prosciutto. Another delicious option is halved figs, spread with cream cheese and sprinkled with anise seeds. They are great added to the pizza topping combinations. But a current favourite is to enjoy a baked chocolate option, for a little sweetness. For more on that that idea, click here.