A pair of angry birds are guarding the Marseilles fig tree.
Every time we try to pluck a ripe one—and believe me, there are lots—they squawk furiously. Then they dive-bombus, indignant and daring. At the last second they veer away from the broom shaking at them.
I think they’re saying, “Hands off the merchandise!”
The main offender is an unknown charcoal-grey bird with a thin curved beak and dangerously glittering eyes. His partner in crime is a fat red cardinal who swoops from branch to branch, looking for the ripest figs, dipping his beak into their pale pearly flesh. Looking down on the tree from my office window, it drives me slightly mad to see them feasting on the ones we can’t reach.
This was the weekend when the hard green fruit suddenly swelled voluptuously…
Abel became a daredevil, balancing precariously on top of a ten- foot ladder, twisting this way and that to pluck the ripe ones. In all he placed 143 yellowish figs in a basket I held with one hand while, with the other, I tried to keep the ladder from careening onto the porch roof.
There are nearly as many more green ones, slowly ripening in the sun.
One hundred and forty-three figs may not seem like much, but for us it was miraculous. Now the question is what to do with them—apart from popping them into our mouths whenever we walk by the Spanish table where they are lined up like a battalion of soldiers.
At Taillevent in Paris last fall, B enjoyed a lunch of Canard de Challans Roti Aux Figues de Sollies Et A La Canelle, which is to say, a duck breast, cut into rosy slices, roasted with gorgeous dark-skinned A.O.C. figs from Provence, impaled on very thin sticks of cinnamon. I said it then, and I say it now, this is an idea worth stealing even if Thomas Jefferson’s favorite figs don’t have the bright pink flesh that make the French variety so pretty.
It’s always interesting to look at cookbooks to see who’s really attuned to fresh figs. In How I Cook, Skye Gyngell, an Australian chef who until recently helmed the kitchen at Petersham Nurseries Café in England, uses beautiful dark figs with rosy insides to make a classic French tart with vanilla-scented pastry cream. Inexplicably, though, she glazes the fruit with strawberry jam, adding another flavor to the delicate taste of the figs.
Actually I suspect that Nigel Slater is the king of figs. In Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard, he devotes dozens of pages to photographs and recipes using fresh figs from three prolific trees in his London garden. Varieties include Rouge de Bordeaux, Brown Turkey and Petite Negri which he has trained to cover a courtyard wall. I knew he was a man after my own heart when I read: “A garden can never have too many figs.”
Like Slater, I love to eat fresh figs out of hand, occasionally with a sliver of Manchego cheese. In the book he creeps up on cooking the fragile fruit. He starts, for instance, with a sort-of-recipe in which ripe figs are served with warm flatbread and feta that has been drizzled with olive oil seasoned with thyme, rosemary, green peppercorns, and a small red chile, then baked in the oven.
Soon though, he’s roasting duck legs in Barolo and thyme, with figs added to the wine-infused juices towards the end. He notes that resinous-flavored thyme is one of the few herbs that “add anything much to the pleasures of eating a fig.” Together, he says, they “conjure up scorched hillsides in the baking sun.”
I’m thinking about dessert, though. Maybe a riff on Slater’s idea of roasting fresh figs in sweet Marsala wine.
But I have to hurry: The figs have dwindled to a mere 71. Not so mysteriously, the perfect ones have disappeared. What’s left are the slightly over-ripe ones and those that are scarred where the birds pecked at them.
But who’s complaining? Over-ripe figs, at least up to a point, are unbelievably sweet–and a few bird scratches don’t bother me. It’s time to cook….and eat!