Figs have always been an important food for Jews. They are one of the Seven Species mentioned in the Torah that were traditionally brought as offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem. These seven foods—figs, grapes, pomegranates, dates, olives, wheat, and barley—still play an important role in Israeli cuisine. Traditionally, it is customary to serve the Seven Species to celebrate Tu B’Shevat—the Festival of the Trees, which is held in gratitude for the fruits of the earth and everything that grows.
In the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve are described as being clad in fig leaves, after eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden—an image that has been used by painters for centuries. It is often said that the Tree of Knowledge was a fig tree, rather than an apple tree. Throughout the Bible, the fig is a symbol of prosperity, peace, and well-being.
In biblical times figs were widely cultivated in Israel and were a mainstay of the diet, eaten fresh and dried. Fresh figs were often cooked down in water to make a kind of molasses, similar to date molasses. Dried figs, on the other hand, were pressed into cakes called develah (literally, “pressed together”) in Hebrew, which could be easily transported. Develah were often given as gifts or as payments for services rendered.
The fig tree (Ficus carica) is one of the first plants cultivated by humankind. The remains of figs have been found in the Jordan Valley, just north of Jericho, dating back to Neolithic times. Figs were much enjoyed by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Cleopatra was said to be so fond of figs that a basket of figs was brought to her on her death bed. Mithrodatus, the Greek king of Pontus, claimed that figs were an antidote to all ailments and recommended that his citizens eat them daily. Pliny the Elder sung the figs’ praises as a restorative. The Prophet Muhammad was so fond of the fig that he declared it the fruit he would most wish to see in paradise.
The fig tree usually produces two crops a year. The first, or breba, crop—called bakkurot in Hebrew—develops on the previous year’s shoots and matures at the beginning of summer. The main crop of figs—te’enim in Hebrew—which is usually of superior quality and quantity, ripens in late summer or early fall. Unlike most tree fruits, the fig does not develop from a flower, but grows out of a hollow structure called a syconium that is filled with numerous tiny flowers that eventually become seeds. These seeds are the actual fruit inside the fig. Figs can vary in size and color from pale green to brown or purple to black. They have a very high sugar content, which accounts for their sweet taste. When buying figs, try to choose figs with a thin, unblemished skin. Ripe figs should yield slightly when squeezed, but still retain their shape. Fresh figs are usually eaten raw. Once the stem is cut away, the entire fruit is edible, including the skin, although it can be peeled away, if desired. Dried figs make an excellent snack, especially when accompanied by nuts, or they can be used to make fruit compotes or preserves, or added to cakes and pastries.
Today, figs are cultivated all over the temperate world, especially in southern Italy, Turkey, Greece, Morocco, and Iran. There are hundreds of varieties. Some of the most prized are the Mission fig, sometimes called the Black Mission fig, which was first brought to the United States in 1768 by Franciscan missionaries, who planted it in San Diego and up the coast of California. The Mission fig is considered one of the finest quality figs in the U.S. It has a dark skin with deep pink flesh with a pleasing honeylike taste.
Another variety of note is the Figue de Sollies, which is cultivated in the department of Var in the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region of southeast France. This variety is violet in color with black veins and a firm texture and is prized for its balanced flavor of sweetness and acidity. It has dark red flesh with beige grains and a lovely aroma reminiscent of honeydew melon and strawberries.
Greece is famous for its Syka Vavronas Markopoulou Messongion—a succulent fig with a dark-burgundy skinand deliciously sweet flavor that has been grown in the municipality of Attica since ancient times. Turkey, which cultivates more figs than anywhere else in the world, is famous for its excellent dried figs, like the sun-dried Aydin inciri: large, thin-skinned figs with a soft texture and honey-sweet taste that have POD (Protected Designation of Origin) status. Italy also produces excellent figs, especially the Fico Bianco del Cilento—the white fig of Cilento—which is cultivated in the province of Salerno in Campania. These small, aromatic figs are usually sun-dried. They have a brownish white flesh, and are often flavored with fennel seeds, stuffed with nuts, then coated with chocolate and served for Christmas.
Both fresh and dried figs have many health benefits. They are rich in vitamin A, vitamin C, and minerals, especially potassium, which is said to reduce high blood pressure, and calcium, which is good for bone health and may help prevent osteoporosis. They also have a high fiber content, which makes them a natural laxative.
Paola Gavin is a food writer and author of four vegetarian cookbooks including Hazana: Jewish Vegetarian Cooking. Follow her on Instagram @paolagavin and on Twitter @paolagavinfood.