One benefit of waking up at 6:11 every morning—paws on my shoulder, wet nose on my cheek—is wandering outside when the garden is fresh and cool.
Just as the smoldering sun rises, it’s perfect time to see what assignations have taken place during the sultry summer night. I can’t help but notice the way certain plants have moved a little closer to each other.
As the saying goes, they’re better together…
For instance, a single bright orange marigold and this “Sparkling Burgundy” pineapple lily appear to have become bosom buddies. The lily lowers its starry flower head, pretending shyness, as its supple stalk boldly snakes across the marigold’s pretty foliage, like a teenage boy trying to touch the skin beneath his girl’s petticoats. (Yes, I do realize how this image dates me.)
Across the way, the finely cut leaves of a citronella-scented geranium have cuddled up to the red-veined foliage of the sweet potato vine spilling uncontrollably out of its own pot. Aside from their colors, it’s hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. Ahem! A little discretion, please.
Oh, the garden is seething with seduction. The tendrils of the confederate jasmine are shamelessly hovering over an ash-smudged antiquorum illustris elephant ear. The jasmine’s blossoms have come and gone, but that doesn’t keep it from flirting recklessly with any plant that comes near enough to touch.
Which brings me to the figs and the roses….
If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know how much I adore our fig tree. This summer, as before, there’s a splendid crop of plump Marseilles figs, a delicious green-skinned variety that was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite.
But alas: Except for a spectacular few, most of this year’s fruit is pallid and washed out. The figs’ rich, sweet flavor is a casualty, I fear, of early summer’s drenching rains. Even worse, the picked fruit tends to spoil almost overnight.
But there is an upside. “Marseilles” is growing within kissing distance of climbing rose “Felicia,” an heirloom that produces clusters of pale apricot-pink blossoms throughout the summer. The flowers also have an exquisite fragrance, especially in the morning when the new buds are just unfurling.
Yesterday, after eating one too many bland figs, I decided to make jam. This, of course, runs counter to all preserving advice in which we are sternly counseled to use only the best fruit, perfectly ripe and unblemished.
Naturally, this year’s figs not only lack flavor, but are also discolored on the bottom, just from sitting on a plate overnight. Worse yet, many obdurately refuse to ripen fully. Oh, and do I see some bird damage? Yes, those robins have been quite busy in the last few days.
But I was dying to try my friend Neel’s easy recipe for fig jam. It’s so simple: For every cup of figs, cut in half, add 1/3 cup sugar, plus 3 tablespoons lemon juice per pound of the fruit. The secret is in the cooking—a slow simmer over a low flame just until the figs are translucent and the syrup has thickened.
At the last minute, I stripped “Felicia” of a handful of fragrant petals and stirred them into the bubbling pot. Did the tree’s proximity to the climbing rose make me do it? Or was I remembering Neel’s three daughters as adorable flower girls, sweetly scattering rose petals down the aisle the day I married B?
Who knows? But as it turned out, the flower-scented jam was heavenly. That slow simmer with nothing more than lemon juice and sugar somehow drew out the figs’ missing flavor, while the rose petals infused the preserves with just a hint of their seductive scent.
This morning B and I devoured most of one jar with our buttered toast and chive-flecked eggs.
And this afternoon? We’ve just finished picking more fruit for another round of wedded bliss.
Roses and figs, that is.
Neel’s Fresh Fig Jam with Rose Petals
Makes 1 pint of jam
1-1/2 pounds fresh, ripe figs, cut in half (about 4 cups)
1-1/3 cups sugar
4 tablespoons lemon juice
½ cup fresh, fragrant rose petals, unsprayed
or a few drops of rosewater
Combine the figs, sugar and lemon juice in a heavy-bottomed, medium-sized pot over low heat. Stir gently until the sugar dissolves and the figs release their juices. The mixture should be quite liquid.
Raise the heat just enough to slowly bring the ingredients to a bare simmer. (Do not allow the mixture to boil, or the fruit will become tough.) When the mixture has begun to bubble, stir in the rose petals if you are using them. (If using rosewater, wait until the next step.) Then gently simmer the figs for 40 to 50 minutes, or until they become translucent and the syrup has thickened. Remove from the heat.
If you are using rose water, add it now, one drop at a time. (Rosewater is very strong so go slowly—2 or 3 drops will probably be enough.) Taste after stirring each drop into the mixture. The jam should be subtly flavored —if you go overboard, it will taste as if you’re eating flowers.
Decant the jam into 1 or 2 clean glass jars and refrigerate. For the best flavor, let it come to room temperature before serving.