Monday, October 27, 2008

Bountiful Fig Crop is Welcome Event

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 27, 2008)

For the first time ever, our fig trees have produced more fruit than my husband can eat.

Along with red raspberries, blackcaps, blackcaps and ripe apricots, fresh picked figs top the list of Ralph’s favorite fruits. For breakfast, he likes to cut them up into little pieces to add to oatmeal. For a mid-day snack he makes a sort of open-face sandwich out of a piece of whole wheat bread topped with almond butter, bee pollen, cider jelly and fig slices. And throughout the day, he munches on fruit plucked fresh from the tree.

Most people are not as well acquainted with the delicate flavor of this most ancient of fruits as my fruit-loving, health-conscious husband. The only time they may have tasted a fig was when it was either processed into a snack like Fig Newtons or offered up in its dried state during holidays. That’s unfortunate because fresh figs are marvelous. Unlike their tough and chewy dried counterpart, the fresh fruit is mild flavored, soft and sweet.

Yet, despite these attributes, figs are not a staple of the produce aisle. Perhaps that’s because its soft skin damages easily or maybe it may be due to its inability to ripen off the tree. Unlike apples and bananas, which can be picked before they reach maturity and ripened over time, figs must stay attached until they are ready to be eaten. That presents problems for grocers who want produce to withstand extended transportation, storage and shelf time. None-the-less, every year from late summer through December, a small number of figs make their way onto supermarket shelves.

In past years, our family eagerly anticipated fig season so we could supplement our meager supply of homegrown fruit with store bought delicacies. I’d bite the bullet and spend $6 a pound for a small container of Brown Turkey, Mission, Calimyrna or Kadota figs (CQ all names). I had my rationales down pat:

· Even at $6, a pound of figs costs less than a bottle of wine, fresh fish or a better cut of meat.

· As a splurge, figs are far cheaper than dinner out, a movie or even a box of popcorn at the movies.

· Figs are just as sweet but less expensive and better for you than a fancy dessert or a box of chocolates.

The cashier would take my money and I’d deliver the goods to my waiting family. Ralph would immediately sort the fruit into piles of most and least ripe. The ripest fruit were eaten right away with the remainder stored in the refrigerator in the hope that they’d last for at least a few more days.

The supermarket run was fun but growing your own is way better.

Ralph planted his first fig trees just over 30 years ago on Cape Cod. Because these deciduous members of the mulberry family are sensitive to cold, each winter Ralph would partially dig up the short, stocky trees, tip them over and cover the top with a heavy layer of mulch. This work-intensive technique enabled the trees to survive harsh freezes, but didn’t result in fruitful harvests. What it did do was prolong our anticipation of a seasonal crop.

“Maybe this will be the year (pick any summer from 1976 to1987),” we’d optimistically muse, “when the trees will be mature enough to finally produce a crop.”

Apparently, they never reached that precipice of fruit-worthy development because in all our years of Cape Cod living, I can’t remember eating a single homegrown fig. What can I say? We were young. We were eager. We were stupid.

Our move to Florida in1987 presented new opportunities for fruitful explorations. No longer challenged by snowy weather, we had expectations of bountiful harvests. Unfortunately, we failed to realize that Florida’s mild climate presented problems we had not anticipated – namely, soil-inhabiting, multi-celled creatures called nematodes.

Nematodes, more commonly known as round worms, are members of the 20,000-strong phylum Nemata. While some types of nematodes act as beneficial controls for annoying pests like Japanese beetles, fleas and plant-eating grubs, others are a fruit-grower’s nemesis. When nematodes attack fig trees, immature figs drop off before they have a chance to ripen. That means even before other threats to a fig’s viability – threats like birds, squirrels, snails and slugs - have a chance to ruin any ripening fruit, tiny soil born organisms will destroy them.

After years of trying one type of fig tree after another, Ralph finally latched onto a nematode-resistant variety developed at Louisiana State University in 1991 called LSU Purple. It’s been figs from those trees that, this year, produced more fruit than we can eat.

Having too many figs is not a problem to someone like my husband. In addition to the various ways he enjoys eating them fresh, Ralph has been experimenting with different ways to preserve his plentiful crop. Usually, he freezes them but one day I came into the kitchen to find a batch of figs on the stovetop being boiled up into a kind of bare minimum jam. I had my doubts how his no-sugar, no-pectin concoction would taste but it only took one lick of the spoon to turn me into a believer.

I may politely say “No thank you” whenever Ralph offers to make me one of his patented fig-laced, bee pollen, almond butter and cider jelly sandwiches but when it comes to offers of fig jam on toast or fresh figs off the tree, I’ll answer “Yes!” every time.

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