It Figgers

Article excerpt

BEE WILSON on a fruit that reaches the highs, and lows, of oysters


Figs are like oysters. They come into their own in autumn. During the first months ending in "r", you know that oysters and figs are good to eat. The Romans referred to the moment when summer truly ends as prima ficus, meaning first fig. As I write, we are in mature fig season, when the sweetest purple fruits are in the markets, ready to be draped with prosciutto or baked with honey, or eaten just as they are in a single, greedy gulp.

As I say, figs are like oysters. Sometimes they are seen as food of the rich, sometimes as food of the poor. In the days when they were slurped with Guinness, oysters were working men's grub. Now they are ostentatious little status symbols, pearls for the gullet. And so with figs. In their fresh form, when the finest species and specimens are on offer, figs are a luxury fruit, each one transported in its own cushioned container. The Greeks saw them as "more precious than gold". Ancient nobles gorged on Smyrna figs, and used them-ultimate decadence-to fatten the liver of geese for the table. Yet Pliny called dried figs the food of slaves. Often, the dried fig has been so ubiquitous among Mediterranean and Arab peoples that it almost replaced bread as a staple food. Figs are schizophrenic fruits, both common and rare. When dried, they can appear wizened and ordinary. When fresh, they can appear ripe like no other fruit, bulging sacs of tiny pips.

Again, figs are like oysters. Why? Because both foods are somehow ineffably obscene, One can see why so many people have insisted over the years that both are aphrodisiac foods, even if, as Alan Davidson has recently argued, there is no such thing as a true aphrodisiac. Figs bring out the coyness in wordy gastronomes, provoking the knowing epithets "voluptuous" and "sensuous" to trip across the tongue. …