Here Figgy, Figgy!
Last week, I bought a basket of Black Mission figs from Cadena Ranch at the Saturday market, and nearly died and went to Shangri-la, they were so good—a get-down-on-your-knees-and-cry kind of good. I’ve found that it’s oddly difficult to find a really good fig. Many figs for sale are picturesque, but under-ripe. And some have lovely colors, but really lack that jammy, sexy fig sweetness, flavor, and texture. Ramón and Lucy, the owners of Cadena Ranch, however, provide perfectly ripe figs. They are deep purple—almost black, with small wrinkles near the stem and light cracks down the sides (a tell-tale sign of sweet fruit). Their flavor is intense, and their ruby insides are just a bit juicy. I’m infamous for wolfing delicious food down, but I slowly savored these because I knew that fig experiences like these don’t just happen every day. I ate some plain in the afternoon, some halved with pecorino after dinner, and some in the middle of the night when no one was counting how many were left.
The fig allures in every possible way. You can smell a fig tree from half a block away, the fruits and leaves permeating the air with their sugary, heady aroma. The tree looks like the baobab illustrations from The Little Prince, but with large lobed leaves. And the fruits—ample teardrops of super-saturated color, flavor, and aroma—are beyond inviting. It’s no wonder that mankind was tempted into eating them more than 11 millennia ago.
Figs are some of the earliest fossils that exist of cultivated food, and date back to 9400B.C. from the Jordan valley. These Neolithic fig fossils predate even the first domesticated grains and legumes (9000B.C.). They were valued not only for their beauty and flavor, but for their dense nutritional content because they contain so much sugar—a much needed calorie source for ancient Greeks and Romans. Figs are also entrenched deeply into society and language. The literal translation of sycophant in Greek is “a person who shows the fig.” The origins of this idiom could have something to do with informers on the ancient Greek black market fig trade trying to curry favor with authorities. Their curvaceous shapes lend themselves well to sexual references, too. “Showing the fig” is an obscene hand gesture, recognized throughout the Mediterranean. It is the equivalent of “flipping the bird,” but is produced by making the universal sign for “I got your nose.” And figs have a long history in California which begins with the eighteenth century Spanish Franciscan missionaries bringing cultivated figs, giving the “Black Mission” fig its name.
Other common varieties of fig include the Brown Turkey (plump, wet), the Kadota (green skin, ruby flesh), and the Candy Stripe (pale green stripes, pink flesh). The dry and hot climate of the Davis and central valley areas provide the perfect conditions to ripen and deeply sweeten figs, in particular (in my humble opinion), the Black Mission figs, such as those at Cadena Ranch. They’re tricky, Black Mission figs, because when they look the most picturesque, they aren’t quite at the peak of their ripeness. And of course, Ramón never picks them until they are just so. They have a couple varieties of fig trees on their property with a total of four trees, but they only bring their finest from their best Black Mission tree to the Davis Farmers’ Market. I’m telling you, people—get them while you can.
Ramón and Lucy know a more than a little bit about the finer nuances of picking the perfect fruit. In the years that followed their 1971 purchase of their farm, Lucy painstakingly saved the pits from only the best peaches that she ate, and planted those on her property. As a result, their peaches are not only delicious, but steeped in family history and indicative of the love that goes into their food. They dry their own pears and plums. Their bounty also includes a lovely little selection of nuts, and within weeks, they will have fresh walnuts, which are infinitely more sweet, moist, and delicate than their dried counterparts—a must have with late figs and cheese.
As it turns out, the fruits are not the only edible part of the fig tree. When I first started working at Eccolo in Berkeley, at the beginning of one lunch service, I smelled this intriguing combination of fig, flora, delicate white fish, and wine. I imagined I had maybe developed a brain tumor because figs weren’t quite in season, but it was worth it if I was going to smell things as heavenly as that! It turned out to be halibut baked in fig leaves. Like so many dishes cooked at Eccolo, it was a revelation; my cooking and my tastes were changed forever. You can find a version of this recipe in Alice Waters’ children’s book, Fanny at Chez Panisse.
And you can find Ramón and Lucy, generous, helpful, and sweet at the Saturday and Wednesday Davis Farmers’ Markets.
Davis Farmers’ Market – Saturdays, 8am-1pm on 4th and C Street
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