Thursday, 5 June 2014


“Tell me what you eat, I’ll tell you who you are.” - Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

The fig, Ficus carica, is believed to be indigenous to western Asia and to have been widely distributed by humans throughout the Mediterranean area. Remnants of figs have been found in excavations of sites traced to at least 10,000 B.C. Spanish missionaries brought it to the United States in 1520 A.D.

In Greek mythology, Sykeus was one of the giants who waged war on the Olympian gods. During one of the battles, while Syceus was fleeing from an angry Zeus, his mother Gaia (the Earth) hid him in her bosom, transforming him into the first fig-tree (sykea, in Greek). The Greek goddess of agriculture, Demeter, was said to have given the fruit of the fig as a gift to the god of wine, Dionysus. The fruit was subsequently blessed by the gods.

Plato reports that Greek athletes at the Olympic Games were fed diets of figs to increase their running speed and overall strength. Dried figs, especially, contain a high concentration of sugars, which is virtually like feeding the athlete an energy bar. Figs were an important part of the basic diet of ancient people living around the Mediterranean and near East, and like the olive and vine, were a symbol of peace and prosperity.

The fig is considered by many people to have been the forbidden fruit eaten by Adam and Eve in Eden. This is because in the same tract, it is described how God made garments of fig leaves (Gen. 3:7) so that Adam and Eve could cover their nakedness. The Jewish King, Hezekiah, was cured of a life-threatening plague by applying figs to the infected spot (2 Kings 20). The most famous Biblical reference to figs is that, in which Jesus cursed a fig tree for not producing any fruit for him as he passed by, a curse that killed the fig tree (Matt 21:18). The Apostle, James, brother of Jesus, used the metaphor of the fig tree to describe the appropriate behaviour that one is expected to follow from Christian living (James 3:12). 

The fig develops from a cluster of hidden flowers, all within the fruit (technically called a syconium). Because of this peculiar form of the flower of figs, ancient Indians regarded the fig as a flowerless tree. Buddhist and Hindu texts sometimes refer to “seeking flowers in a fig tree” to indicate something that is pointless or impossible, or to indicate the total absence of some quality.

Cooked figs were used as sweeteners in ancient times and this practice is still used in many countries in Asia. Ripe figs contain over 50% sugar. The tiny seeds of the fig are not digested by the stomach and offer a great laxative effect, especially useful to the elderly or those people with a sedentary lifestyle. Figs are good source of flavonoids and polyphenols both compounds having strong antioxidant properties. Figs and other dried fruit measured for their antioxidant content showed that two medium size dried figs produced a significant increase in plasma antioxidant capacity. Figs also have higher quantities of fibre than any other dried or fresh fruit. Figs are high in iron, calcium, potassium, and they are used as a diuretic and a laxative by naturopaths.

In harvesting the figs, it is important to pick the fruit from the tree, when it is completely mature (usually when it sags, droops, and changes colour). If the figs are taken from the tree prematurely, the sweetness declines, but more importantly, if the figs are removed in the juvenile developing state, a white milky fluid (latex) exudes from the stem, which is transferred to a person’s hands and then eyes or mouth. The fluid is very irritating and should be washed away as quickly as possible. Aristotle noted its use for coagulating milk to make cheese and it is still used in this way today in traditional cheese making. The latex is also used medicinally, and is widely applied on warts, skin ulcers and sores.

The beautiful leaves of the fig tree are used to make an odd scented perfume with the aroma of wood or musk. Figs can be frozen whole or sliced in plastic bags or jars and can be expected to last satisfactorily for one year. Dried figs can be soaked in warm water to restore their shape and softness. Figs contain protein-digesting enzymes and can be used as a meat tenderiser and a taste enhancer. Dried figs are often used to substitute for recipes calling for dried apricots, dates, or prunes.

1 comment:

  1. At a dinner party this week, each guest was allowed to nominate his/one one favourite fruit. This wasn't easy as people mostly love a whole range of fruits, but I had no trouble: figs! Spouse makes our own jam and we eat cooked fig compote.