Local Figs: A Love Letter to a Short Sweet Season

Figs are coming into season early this year, and Lizzy’s post from 2006 is always popular, so I thought I’d run it again. Recipe by Eric Bechard

Black Mission & Adriatic Figs

Portland Oregon is practically raining figs. There are big brown, black and green blobs on sidewalks, on top of cars, and backyards are slippery mine fields. It won’t last long though, because we are nearing the end of the  season.

Fresh figs remind me, somewhat sadly, that summer has now peaked and I need to savor every last bite, for there are only a couple of the good weather months left.

Portlanders love figs, our green grocers and farmers markets are overflowing with them, and chefs in town are swooning with inspiration.

There are over 75 identified fig varieties that grow in the Willamette Valley, each just slightly different enough to be noticed. Common types in Portland include the proficient and hardy Brown Turkeys, large chartreuse Desert Kings, and the thick-skinned but honey sweet Kadotas. Some varieties are much less known, like the Madeleine des Deux Saisons (Madeleine of Two Seasons) from Brittany, France, so named because they bear fruit in the summer and then again in the fall which is somewhat unusual for our climate. There is also  the Cottenham. As lore has it, the was rescued in the 1920’s from the dilapidated memorial site of a 17th century British Knight. A single cutting of this tree was brought to our area by chance, propagated, and resurrected from near extinction. Several years ago it was designated as a heritage tree, and saved. It now thrives in Portland.

Figs are mythical and mysterious, and dredge up all kinds of things burned deep into our collective consciousness: Adam and Eve with their fig leaves and other morality tales, ancient still life oil paintings showing platters overflowing with the fruit, and quaint seasonal songs about Figgy Pudding. On a more personal level, fresh figs always bring me back to a decadent vacation, lounging in the hot Mediterranean sun, and eating figs until my stomach hurt. And one of my earliest memories is of being 6 years old and lifted up high on Daddy’s shoulders, covered in a thick canopy of green, feeling on top of the world and trying to grab the ripest ones from our Grandmother’s giant tree.

Figs are ancient, thought by some the oldest cultivated fruit. Remnants have been found in excavation sites traced back to 5,000 B.C. Many cultures view them as medicine, certain that they will cure both heartaches and upset stomachs. Figs are high in calcium, potassium, and magnesium. Yes, they also contain quite a bit of fiber, so they have very real laxative qualities. Figs are good for you.

Such a coy little fruit too, their modest fat bottomed exteriors hiding such luscious pink insides. Figs have a slightly nutty taste and a distinctive crunch from all those tiny seeds. They are not terribly juicy, and will not drip down your chin like a peach or a watermelon. They have a subtle scent, somewhat musky, but not overly perfumed like our garish party girl fruit, the cantaloupe. A good ripe fig is as soft as a marshmallow and can be peeled, eaten as is, or (my favorite method) simply cut in half and scooped up with a spoon. These fruits are delicate, bruise easily, and must be picked when ripe, as they do not do well once off the tree. This makes them difficult to transport and sell commercially, and is the main reason you rarely see fresh figs in large corporate supermarkets. Many people in colder climates can’t even get them, and I know a poor soul or two that has never even tasted one. Oh, how lucky we as Portlanders are to have figs growing so close to us.

Figs, however, are the ambassadors of the fruit world, showing up in many an international culture, and they get along with just about everyone, both savory and sweet. Grilling brings out their sugar as does a pinch of salt, and they are good roasted or baked, or stuffed with many varieties of cheeses. They mix nicely with raw or cooked vegetables, and can be paired with meat, fish, and fowl. Figs are versatile, and are included in all kinds of desserts from creams to baked goods, and even go well with chocolate, nuts, and other fruits, especially citrus. If treated right, figs can easily be preserved for the winter by drying, canning, put up into in jams or chutney, or boiled down into bright sticky syrups. Daydreaming of summer in January? Try some figs preserved in brandy over ice cream, a splash of vanilla-fig syrup with orange liqueur in your vodka cocktail, or spicy fig chutney with roasted peppers for your pork chops.

Mixed Figs

Back in 1996 when Eric Bechard was executive chef of the now closed Alberta Street Oyster Bar and Grill, he waxed poetic about his love of fresh figs. Eric had all sorts of ideas on what do with them, and kept saying things like, “ah, the Missions, it’s so hard to find an ingredient with that deep black color, they look so beautiful cut on a plate, and figs pair well with just about everything.”

Now the owner of Thistle restaurant in McMinville Oregon, Chef Bechard was generous enough to share this recipe, and I hope you will enjoy it. It serves 4, very generously. Smaller plates could serve 6 as part of a larger meal, or even 8 as a tapas style appetizer.

Salad of Mission Figs, Roasted Chanterelles, Goat Cheese, Frisée and a Warm Bacon Vinaigrette

Ingredients:
12 Mission Figs (each cut into quarters, stems removed if you wish)
3 heads Frisée (cleaned and leaves separated)
2 oz Goat Cheese (chèvre style)
1 lb Chanterelles (roasted, instructions below)
2 Cups Bacon Vinaigrette (recipe follows)

For the Roasted Chanterelles:
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wash Chanterelles to remove all dirt and place them in an oven proof pan and cover with foil. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. Cool. This can be done in advance.

Warm Bacon Vinaigrette:
3 Strips of Bacon
2 Shallots (chopped)
½ Cup Sherry Vinegar
1 ½ Cups Canola Oil
1TB Fresh Thyme (chopped)
Salt and Ground Pepper to Taste

Cut the Bacon into small pieces and cook in a small pan at low heat
until crispy. Turn off heat and add Shallots, Sherry, and Thyme, and slowly whisk in Oil. Season to taste with Salt and Pepper. This can be done in advance. Be sure to reheat vinaigrette before assembly.

To Assemble:
In a large mixing bowl gently combine prepared frisée, roasted Chanterelles and cut figs. Dress with the Warm Bacon Vinaigrette and place a small amount of salad, being sure to get some of each item, in the center of each plate. Finish by crumbling the Goat Cheese on each salad. Serve immediately.

Enjoy.

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. Pam says

    Wow! The writing, the sensibility, the recipe…! “Such a coy little fruit too, their modest fat bottomed exteriors hiding such luscious pink insides”. The list of dishes currently being offered in local restaurants made me hungry all on it’s own. I made a fig, prosciutto, goat cheese pizza last week and it was really good. I recommend it.

    Great piece. I hope you contribute often.

  2. vicki says

    No, no, you don’t bare fruit – you BEAR fruit. One of those silly English language things…

    So where can we find this Crusader fig?

  3. Cuisine Bonne Femme says

    Vicki, Not sure where to find the fruit, but you can find the tree through the Collector’s Nursery in Battleground, WA or Portland Nursery can probably hook you up.

  4. erik says

    the picture of the sliced fruits remind me of the high school biology diagrams of a womb.

    one things i was surprised that hadn’t been mentioned was Augustus’ (Octavian) instance that he only eat figs that he picked himself because he believed someone was trying to poison him (in “I, Claudius”). turns out he was right. his wife ended up coating the figs with poison right on the tree.

    “While playing dice with a group of friends, Augustus has a sudden attack of severe stomach pain. He refuses to eat anything but the figs he has picked from the tree himself. The doctor briefs Livia and she fondles a fig in a mysterious, bemused way. Augustus finally slips into death as Livia, in the background, explains her rationale.”

    ah, Livia & the figs. perhaps apocryphal but a good storyline nonetheless.

  5. Food Dude says

    I noticed a huge pile of several types of figs at Whole Foods today. I was just walking past, and could see them through the door. I swear.

    • dg says

      Don’t buy the figs at Whole Foods! They’re awful. They have to pick them under-ripe so they survive shipping/ distribution. They do NOT continue to ripen and instead go from unripe straight to rotten. If your only experience with figs is one from a grocery store, you will be very disappointed. They taste nothing like the soft, honey-sweet treats I recall from my childhood!

      You’d have better luck with figs from a farmers market!

  6. Carolyn says

    For his 40th birthday, friends gave my husband a cookbook: Everything’s Better with Bacon. (… which is true … see the dessert description in the Le Pigeon review newly posted …)

    One of our favorite recipes is an appetizer of halved figs, top cut side with a piece of cooked bacon cut to fit (we like the Hempler’s bacon from Washington State, available at Haggen), then a bit of goat cheese. Pop under the broiler just until the goat cheese begins to melt.
    Drizzle with a bit of good balsamic vinegar, and hand out the wet-naps for the sticky fingers everyone will have after they’ve jammed a few of these into their faces. Hard to resist!

  7. blase says

    Oh, give us a break, pig. Perhaps you might substitute a local fig for one that lives over the state line….sheesh!

  8. singingpig says

    blase,

    You are missing my point completely. The article was about local figs and the recipe spec’d misssion figs. No problem substituting. I only eat my figs straight from the tree, in season, that I picked myself.

    My problem is that, as a grower for restaurants, I quit harvesting a huge 80 yearold Kadota fig tree because chefs quit using them in favor of the mission figs from Cali. The reason had nothing to do with flavor, quality etc. They switched to mission figs solely because fo the color and how it looked on their plates. Every mission fig served in a restaurant is one local fig that rots on the ground instead of being turned into cash for the grower.

    It surely couldn’t have been much more effort to obtain a recipe from a chef using the local product.

    I’m just saying…

  9. Jeff says

    Great writer Food Dude! Where did you find her?

    After reading this my wife and I went out and bought a whole flat of figs, yes singingpig, local figs, and are kind of drowing in them now.

    Anyway, your site keeps getting better and better.

  10. Malcolm Walker says

    I love figs. I finally found this page, and then searched to try to determine whether “Portland” was Maine or Oregon, or one of the other less well-known Portlands. After carefully examining many of the website’s links, I found a reference to Willamette valley right here on the fig page.

    You might make it a litle easier on browsers who also love figs, to find out where the season has just come in. thanx, tho’ ……

  11. Jennaeats says

    Growing up in Wisconsin I never tasted a fresh fig until I moved here a few years ago. What a revelation! This article nailed what fresh figs are like for me. I love figs too.

  12. marlynn says

    ooooooh I do love the figs! Being the Francophile that I am, I just had to try the crepe with fig & proscuitto. MY GOODNESS! What a nice balance of sweet, salt, creamy, chewy goodness. Will definitely be heading back to Tour de Crepes. Funny that the owner recommended the Fig, Proscuitto & Chevre crepe when I asked her favorite. SHe ooogled over it saying it was her favorite fruit, definitely her favorite crepe on the menu. Thanks for the suggestion!

  13. liz mason says

    i would like to correct a bit of misinformation in your article about the fig you called the crusader fig. i am the daughter of margaret and it was my grandfather who first found the fig. It is correctly called the Cottenham Fig after the village outside Cambridge, England where it was found by my grandfather in a farm near his own. The farm had been owned at one point by a knight who apparently brought the fig back with him when he returned from the Crusades. It was identified by a staff member of the Royal Botanic Garden in London and I assure you that the original fig is healthy robust and producing abundant figs. Several years ago it was designated as a heritage tree and as such is saved from destruction and under strict regulations with respect to pruning and other care.

    my mother who brought a cutting from England in the ’60’s when such things could still be done happily handed out cuttings to her gardener friends and there are many still thriving in the portland area including in her original garden and my own.

    the large figs are thin skinned, light pink to red inside and to me they taste like honey.

  14. Cuisine Bonne Femme says

    Liz, thanks for the info. This is terrific. There were a lot of stories out there about this mythical and rare fig in our region, but not a lot details.

    I’m glad to know that it has been saved from destruction and that it is still growing strong both here and at the source.

    In honor of this story I plan to buy a Cottenham fig (Crusader)tree this fall to plant in my yard. I believe the Collector’s Nursery in Battleground, WA got a cutting from your mother’s tree soem time back and is selling it under the name Crusader. They also might be interested in the information you have provided me as they too seem unsure of the origin.

    Thanks again,

    Cuisine Bonne Femme

  15. jehnee says

    Steve,
    I haven’t seen you in a few weeks, why don’t you bring us your figs? I’d take some leaves too!

    I love fried figs–check out Judy Rogers’ Zuni Cafe cookbook for the recipe.

  16. says

    I tasted my first fig in California, when a coworker brought some in from her backyard tree. Just a few weeks ago, Winco was selling them by the pound, and I couldn’t believe my luck — Limbo (next to Trader Joe’s on 39th) usually only carries them in pints. I loaded up. They’re sooooooo GOOD, I could polish off a pint in one sitting. Never knew there were so many varieties! Great article.

  17. says

    If you want to truly appreciate the seductiveness of a fig, rent Women in Love on DVD to watch Alan Bates consume said fruit…the sexiest scene in the movie…and this is DH Lawrence we’re talking about.
    The Excelsior restaurant in Eugene used to serve a simple appetizer/first course: a fresh fig, sectioned and spread like a flower, with a dab of creme fraiche in the center. Heaven on a plate.

  18. amanda says

    Are there any u-pick figs in the area? I’ve never had a good fig from the grocery store (usually whole foods). When they’re at the peak of ripeness (the only time worth eating), they transport very poorly because they are mushy and squishy. I will have to scope out the farmer’s markets this week to see if I can find any that are acceptable, but I have my doubts and would love to find a place I can pick them myself.

  19. duck says

    Have two large fig trees in the backyard, nice crop. Nothing like going into the backyard and getting them off the tree for free!

  20. says

    Hi everyone. Thanks for reading and commenting. Just an FYI – this article originally ran in September 2006, at the end of fig season. August is really the start of fig season for most varieties, and since the weather has been a bit wacky this year I don’t think we’ve really hit the full ripeness of fig season yet. I’ve actually had terrific luck at New Seasons, but like I said, wait a month or so for the best figs.

    Finally, I’ll share a not-so-big secret with you because I like y’all so much. Urban Edibles is a website that lists fruit trees that are free for the picking. Check it out: http://urbanedibles.org/

  21. amanda says

    Thanks for the tip!!! My parents 2 fig trees in Roseburg peaked 2 weeks ago, so I was thinking that maybe portland fig trees would only be a couple weeks behind. I guess I’ll wait until September before I start looking for them….

  22. says

    I love me some good figs. Grilling them, stuffed with a little chevre, and a honey/balsamic glaze: food of the gods. I’m stalking fig trees to make fig jam this year. If anyone knows of where to find local figs, let me know. I see those links, Cuisine Bonne Femme, so I’m stalking them, too. :)

  23. JP says

    Figs are so versatile, really nice in savory dishes or dessert. I particularly like it on a pizza, the combination of sweet with salty sauce is a winner.

  24. wine&dine says

    Thank you CBF for romancing the fig. So lovely, so versatile, so lusciously seductive……..food porn. yes, Yes, YES!!

  25. Krystal says

    I have a fig tree in my backyard but I have never tasted them. I actually found this site by searching for when to harvest figs! Mine are green. I’ve never seen them any other color. Some of them are even starting to rot so I didn’t know if they were going to get ripe. Are mine ripe???

  26. Cody says

    Hello all,

    Date is 05 April 2014 . I first read about this Cottenham/Crusader fig back in 2011 and I have been looking for this fig ever since. I have tried the nurseries listed on this page plus about 25 others in the PDX area. If there is ANYONE here that can help me locate cuttings of Cottenham/Crusader, I would be truly greatfull.
    Thanks

  27. Jody says

    I am looking to see if there is a place i can go and u pick some figs at?
    I work in a Alzheimer’s facility and my residents loved the Figs we got last year. they brought back so many memories for them when they where children. Last year we had a nursery donate a couple of
    boxes to us…Except this year they had to cut down their trees so they could expand the nursery.
    If you can think of any place i could pick up some figs please let me know

    Thank You
    Jody

    • Edie says

      We have a large fig tree and would be happy to donate to your center. We have two acres in West Linn and would be happy to host some of your residents to pick figs, blueberries, plums and apples next summer…or they can just watch us pick them for them. They are all organic. What is the name of your facility so I can call you?

      • Jody says

        Thank you for responding back to me so quickly!
        Yes i would love to bring some out our residents out next year.
        Do you have any figs left from this year that I could pick for them?

        Thanks again
        Jody

      • Jody says

        Hello Edie, I am sorry I forgot to leave my phone number this is where I work at The Hampton & Ashley Inn in Vancouver Washington 360-256-8513 We are still interested in the figs if you have any still available? Thanks I look forward to hearing from you. Have a wonderful day!

        Jody Miller/ Activities Director
        hamptonDA@koelschsenior.com
        The Hampton & Ashley Inn
        A Koelsch Senior Community
        1617 SE Talton Ave
        Vancouver Washington 98683
        360-256-8513

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