Figs are one of the oldest cultivated fruits in the world and are considered by many cultures to be the tree of life. Their remains have been found in Neolithic excavations, depicted on Egyptian papyri and, according to Chinese texts, it was under a wild Fig or Bo tree that the Buddha found enlightenment.
The ancient Greeks considered figs to be a gift of the goddess Demeter, and Romans, urged on by their Emperor Cato (an early farm-to-table advocate) dominated much of the African continent largely to maintain their fig supply.
Medieval scientists entertained many unusual figments of imagination. Both Plutarch and Ariosto speak of roosters hung upon fig trees as a way to make them “grow tender and fitter for the table”. The notion was that the fig tree somehow sent forth a “hot and sharp vapor“, that had the capacity to “dry and concoct” flesh. Interestingly, this may have some grounding in science as fig sap is also touted as a nsatural cure for warts.
An ancient method of divination known as Sycomancy, (one of many mocked by Rabelais as ways to reveal your future cuckoldry), suggests that the fig tree can be used as an Oracle. The method is to note the rate of the withering of fig leaves upon which you have inscribed a particular course of action. A leaf that shrivels quickly urges forbearance, while a leaf that remains green and verdant suggests forthright action.
Figs can be enjoyed in both sweet and savory dishes. Savvy chefs often toss a few fig leaves onto the hot coals of a wood-fired barbecue in order to lend meats (such as lamb) a delightful aroma. The leaves can also be wrapped around a salmon fillet before placing it on the grill.