Tuesday, September 4, 2012


There were so many figs this morning that
I'm making Drunken Fig Jam 
(from Epicurious.com). 
Is this a waste of Courvoisier?

I remember Nick Paputo's fig trees. Nick was a good friend of my father's, a Sicilian mason. When he built his own stone home, he transplanted the trees he brought from the old country, trees he had nurtured until they could become the crowning glory of his garden. These figs were accustomed to the warmer Mediterranean winters and needed protection. In the winter, his trees looked like silver spaceships, branches tightly tied so he could cover the tree with aluminum-backed insulation.

Growing up, the only fig trees I knew about belonged to recent immigrants, immigrants who smuggled innocent-looking sticks into the country, sticks that held the promise for figs galore. Despite the most ardent care against the cold, many of these trees didn't survive. In my innocence, I assumed that the only way you could get a fig tree was to travel to Italy and defy customs. But then, my father casually mentioned he wanted a fig tree for his yard. If you have ever tried buying a present for a man, you know that I leaped on his suggestion and went hunting for a fig tree in the good old USA. Surprisingly, they were available from a nursery online. SCORE! And just like those words you learn that suddenly seem to crop up everywhere, fig trees seemed ubiquitous, at Longwood Gardens, at James Madison's house in Virginia, dwarfing a three-story row house in South Philly, in a neighbor's front yard.

Even though my mother is the family member with the green thumb, Dad's fig tree grew quickly. It put out hundreds of figs each season, but he was careful to wrap his tree each fall so it could survive our bitter Pennsylvania winters. When Dad developed cancer, he was initially well enough to protect the fig, but in his last winter, no one thought about the fig. Fortunately, it was not a particularly harsh winter, and the tree managed to survive. My brother took a clipping from Dad's tree, and that tree  still produces lots of figs.

Meanwhile, my family bought me several fig trees, but none of them ever thrived. That is until the year after my father's death. That fig tree slowly adapted to its home on the south side of our house. My husband wraps it carefully each fall, and this year it looked like we might get a bumper crop. We could see lots of baby figs, but that's no guarantee that they will ripen before the first fall frost. But this year everything, from lilacs to lily of the valley to peonies to crape myrtles, has been ahead of season. The figs are no different.

A week ago, the first figs suddenly turned from hard and green to soft and golden. Each morning I've been able to harvest at least six and up to a dozen figs. Now, if your only only experience with figs has been inside a Fig Newton, you are missing one of the most exquisite culinary pleasures imaginable. People have described them as a cross between a strawberry and a peach, but that description does not do justice to the sweet and juicy fruit. You have to experience fresh figs for yourself. They are delicious out of hand, but I'm looking forward to a fig torte, figs wrapped in prosciutto, figs stuffed with cream cheese, figs added in the last thirty minutes to a roast pork. I'm also hoping to turn some into fig jam to extend their season into winter, when our fig tree is hibernating under burlap, waiting to produce next year's crop.
My fig tree

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