Though considered one of the oldest cultivated fruits in the world, figs are actually flowers. Remains of figs have been found in Neolithic excavations and are discussed in colorful detail on Egyptian papyri. According to ancient Chinese texts the Buddha gained enlightenment under a wild fig (Ficus religiosa) or “bo” tree.
Ancient Greeks considered figs to be a gift of the goddess Demeter, while the later Romans, urged on by their Emperor Cato (an early farm-to-table advocate) were willking to conquor much of Africa in order to maintain a steady supply of the fruit.
Medieval scholars had some interesting conceits about figs. Both Plutarch and Ariosto speak of hanging slaughtered roosters upon fig trees as a way to make them “grow tender and fitter for the table”. The notion was that the fig tree sent forth a “hot and sharp vapor“ with the capacity to “dry and concoct” flesh.
Then there was the popular form of Medeival divination known as Sycomancy. Here the fig tree was used as a sort of living Oracle. Guidance seekers would inscribe their chosen course of action upon notes wrapped up in fig leaves. Leaves that withered quickly urged forbearance. Leaves remaining green and moist urged action.
The Spanish brought fig plants to the New World in the 1500s, where missionary fathers planted them (hence the name Mission Figs) from San Diego to Sonoma in the eighteenth century.
Figs are known to promote good sleeping habits, energy, sexual desire, and lessen acids in the stomach. They serve as an ingredient in remedies for diabetes, bronchitis, genital warts, liver cirrhosis, high blood pressure, skin problems and ulcers.
Clever tips in fig cookery include tossing a few leaves directly onto the hot coals of a wood-fired barbecue in order to lend grilled meats (such as lamb) a delightful aroma. Salmon fillets can also be swaddled in fig leaves before being placed on the grill.