Figments of History

Figs are one of the oldest cultivated fruits in the world. Their remains have been found in Neolithic excavations, depicted on Egyptian papyri, and if you pore over ancient Chinese texts with a cup of tea you’ll find that it was under a wild Fig or Bo tree that the Buddha tasted enlightenment.

The ancient Greeks considered figs to be a very large endowment from the goddess Demeter. Later, the Romans, urged on by the culinary figments of their farm-savvy Emperor Cato, conquered much of the African continent to maintain their supply of the fruit.

Medieval scientists took the fig tree to be a sort of mysterious meat-tenderizer. Both Plutarch and Ariosto cite tales of sacrificed roosters hung upon fig trees that “did presently grow tender and thus fitter for the table”. The idea was that the fig tree sent forth a “hot and sharp vapor, that would serve to “dry and concoct” the flesh.

Figs can be employed fruitfully in both in sweet and savory delights. Savvy chefs may turn to fig leaves to add subtle aromatic components to their grilled or barbecued meats. Those who own wood-fired grills might do well to toss a few green fig leaves onto the hot coals beneath a grilling leg of lamb,; or swaddle salmon steaks in fig leaves before grilling.