When Cato the Elder
implored his fellow Romans to fight the Carthaginians,
he showed the senators some fresh figs - supposedly from Carthage - to make
them see just how close the African city was to Rome. Figs concealed the
serpent whose venomous bite killed Cleopatra. The biblical Book of Kings
defines peace and wealth as "each man under his own vine and fig tree."
And, of course, fig leaves were what Adam and Eve used to conceal their
nudity after having consumed the "forbidden fruit," which was
most likely the product of a fig tree (not an apple tree as is commonly
presumed). A chapter of the Koran is named for the fig tree, and Muhammed
speaks of the fruit. In the Lysistrata of Aristophanes a young maiden
wears a necklace made of dried figs as part of her initiation into womanhood.
Like almonds and olives,
figs have an assured place in classical literature and the history of religion.
The common fig (ficus carica) is native to western Asia and the eastern
Mediterranean and, like artichokes (thought to be
indigenous to Sicily), probably grew wild in Sicily during the earliest
times. It was domesticated long ago, in numerous cultivars and varieties,
initially by the first Neolithic farmers, and fossilised figs dated to circa
9400 BC (BCE) were discovered at one of the Gilgal village sites near Jericho.
Two varieties of fig are cultivated in Sicily. The "Italian White"
is actually yellowish green, while the "Italian Black" ripens
to a deep purple. (Both are shown here.) They mature at about the same rate,
and are ready to harvest beginning in late July.
Undomesticated wild figs also grow in Sicily. The green fruit, though
edible, ripens in late August or early September and is small, and relatively
bitter, with a thick skin. Like the nobler cultivars, this is a small tree.
While it is possible to propagate fig trees from seeds, shoots are the
usual method. This means that, like most domesticated grape cultivars, domesticated
fig trees are actually clones. Fig trees like water but can survive with
little or no irrigation in coastal Mediterranean areas. Sunshine seems to
sweeten the fruit, but a particularly dry summer may have a negative effect
on production. Figs thrive in milder climates where the ground rarely freezes;
some varieties are hardier than others.
Often dried, figs are a good source of fibre, potassium, calcium and
other minerals, as well as antioxidants. Buccelato, a Sicilian winter specialty,
is a crust stuffed with figs and nuts. Turkey and Egypt are the top producers
of figs today. Sicily produces figs primarily for local consumption. A noble
fruit, and an ancient one.
About the Author: Roberta Gangi has written
numerous articles and one book dealing with Italian cultural and culinary
history, and a number of food and wine articles for Best of Sicily Magazine.