Being a California gal, my heart still leaps when I watch the most cherished of California traditions: The New Year’s Day Rose Bowl Parade. When I see the intricately designed floats and festooned performers winding their way through the streets of Pasadena, I know that the old has passed away and the New Year has officially arrived in full fanfare. Other things remind me of my earlier days in California as well: The heady, herbal scent of eucalyptus trees, golden fields of mustard on the rolling hills, and gnarled fig trees offering their plump, ripe fruit on bony finger-like branches. Figs are about as California as you can get. They were brought to San Diego in 1769 by the Franciscan missionaries and soon migrated up the coast until they were growing as far north as Sonoma by the turn of the century. The dark purple Mission Fig is the most common variety grown in California and it gets its name from this historical past.
Figs not only remind me of my California birthplace, they are a very significant fruit in my Armenian heritage as well. Although it is supposed that figs originated in ancient southern Arabia, the edible fig was first cultivated extensively in Mesopotamia, Persia and Armenia. My grand-parents had an old fig tree on their farm and a plate of dried figs could often be found on the coffee table along with walnuts and raisins. To this day, my mother makes the best fig jam I have ever tasted. Figs find their way into many recipes in the Mediterranean part of the world and have been appreciated for all of their healthful benefits. In early writings of the historical author Pliny the Younger (61-112AD), it was noted: “Figs are restorative. They increase the strength of young people, preserve the elderly in better health and make them look younger with fewer wrinkles.” I am not convinced about the power to reduce wrinkles but figs are very high in dietary fiber and rich in antioxidants, more than red wine or tea.
Bob Sickles shares my love for figs, so when he and Leslie visited Southern Italy on a buying trip this past September he made it a priority to stop in Cosenza, in the region of Calabria. Some of the sweetest, highest quality figs in the world are found in the hills of Cosenza. Here they met the Rao brothers, Franco and Antonio, who carry on a family tradition of more than 50 years, turning the local Dotatto or White Kadota figs into mouth-watering delicacies. Bob and Leslie toured the factory, the Dolci Pensieri di Calabria, where they watched the step-by-step production of the Rao brothers’ signature specialty: A unique fig ball. The fresh figs are initially dried on mats, roasted for 6 hours until caramelized, hand pressed into balls and then finally wrapped in fresh fig leaves. To eat, you just unfurl the leaves to reveal the dark, gleaming, caramelized figs. We sell these unusual fig balls in Sickles Market Cheese Department where I have served the figs with aged pecorino cheese and almonds, but they would also pair beautifully with gorgonzola and a drizzle of honey.
Another very enjoyable way to eat the prized Dotatto figs is in the form of “salami.” At the Dolci Pensieri, the brothers mix the dried figs with spices, nuts and rum (and plenty of it!), mold the figs into a salami shape, dip the fig “salami” in dark chocolate and finally cover the finished product with netting like real salami. Served in slices, this confection is a rich accompaniment to cheese or delicious on its own with a glass of sweet moscato wine.
Fig preserves are one of my favorite ways to eat figs, especially Villa Capelli’s version with a hint of vanilla and lemon. Mitica also imports a chunky fig spread from Spain, sweetened only with lemon flower honey. I like to keep these jars handy in the cupboard to serve as a quick appetizer with a wedge of goat brie or a slice of Ossau Iraty, the Basque sheep’s milk cheese that won the 2011 World Cheese Awards.
However figs find their way onto your table, I hope that you enjoy all of their delicious and healthful benefits and have a healthy Happy New Year!