Despite the fact that we have old, semi-wild fig trees in our garden, it is not guaranteed that we will savor wonderfully ripe fruit come August. We need to be on the alert, prudently waiting for the 'decisive moment' when the fig bows ever so slightly, where its stem bends from the bough of the bole. Only then, and not before, is the tree ready to give its blossom over to the harvest.
If you mistime the picking, even by half a day, the blazing August sun starts to dry out the fruit's succulent interior. On our stony and arid island, it is almost a miracle that these contorted, frail-looking trees, with trunks infested by colonies of ants, manage to give such small, sweet, delectable fruits. Harvesting figs before the stem-curve moment results in unripe produce, good for the grill or salads, but certainly bearing no resemblance to the honey-sweet, wonderfully juicy taste we adore--the figs we long for the rest of the year.
There are still a few figs in our trees that didn't manage to ripen at summer's peak, and the time has passed for them to reach full sweetness. But they are still precious and not to be wasted.
How could I describe to you, my readers, what a ripe fig, freshly cut from our tree, tastes like? I persist in trying, despite the futility of such an effort. Unless you've been somewhere in southern Europe or the eastern Mediterranean in late July or August, there is no way you can appreciate the flavor every Greek child learns to savor from his earliest years. California figs are a different thing, as are figs imported from Greece or Italy. Figs don't ripen in the box, and they are frightfully fragile when they reach their peak flavor--they simply are not meant for travel.
Photo by Aglaia Kremezi
As the nights grow longer and cooler in September, although the days are still sunny and hot, there are still a few figs in our trees that didn't manage to ripen at summer's peak, and the time has passed for them to reach full sweetness. But they are still precious and not to be wasted; I use them in cakes, tarts, and other sweet and savory dishes.
With some of the semi-dried figs that fall to the ground, from their unreachably high branches, I make a kind of jam, cooking them for about 20 minutes in sweet Samos wine until softened, and then pureeing them in the blender. I freeze the pulp in batches, to use in sweets, ice creams, sauces, or marinades, to bring back a shadow of summer's most wonderful flavor.
Semi-Cooked Fig Jam
Rinse and dry leftover fresh figs that are not perfect to eat, or figs that have fallen from the tree. Alternatively, you can use dried California figs. Cut off the stem, slice in half vertically, and cook the figs for about 20 minutes in sweet Samos wine that barely covers them, stirring every now and then, until softened. They should have absorbed most of the liquid. Puree the figs in the blender, let cool, measure the amount you need, and freeze the rest in batches to use in sweets, ice creams, sauces, or marinades, adding honey or salt, hot pepper, spices, and/or herbs as needed.
VARIATION: Just before mashing in the blender, add the zest of 1 or 2 organic, non-treated lemons if you like a more bittersweet and fragrant jam.