Figs: A Timeless Classic
By contributing food writer Mark Vogel
The Carthaginian Empire arose in the 7th century B.C. Their domain stretched across northern Africa, southern Spain, Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily. A highly commercialized civilization, the Carthaginians endured for approximately 500 years. They may have prospered even longer had it not been for one little fly in the ointment: Rome.
The Roman Republic, (which would later give birth to the Roman Empire in the 1st century B.C.) had a big problem with Carthage. Rome yearned to expand and be the only game in town. They coveted Carthage’s land, ports, and their primary source of wealth, i.e., the silver mines of northern Africa and southern Spain. Greed, power and domination: the oldest motives in the world.
Figs and the Punic Wars
Beginning in 264 B.C. Rome and Carthage engaged in a series of three conflicts known as the Punic Wars. Combined, they would take the lives of hundreds of thousands. The first two enervated but did not eliminate Carthage.
In the years prior to the third Punic War, Cato the Elder, (234-149 B.C.), a Roman statesman, trenchantly expressed his hatred of Carthage and incited the final confrontation. He scathingly ended all of his speeches with “Carthage must be destroyed.” During one oration to the Roman Senate he held up a fresh fig, recently plucked from a Carthaginian tree and exclaimed: “See how close the enemy is?”
To understand Cato’s symbolism it must first be understood that figs deteriorate rapidly. For Cato’s Carthaginian fig to be fresh it had to be within days of its tree. Therefore, his point was to demonstrate the dangerous proximity of Carthage to Roman territory.
His point was ultimately well taken for in the third Punic War (149-146 B.C.); Rome annihilated Carthage. The eponymous capital city of Carthage became a major Roman metropolis for the next six centuries until captured by the Vandals in 439 A.D. The fig however, outlasted them all.
Adam and Eve Liked Figs
According to Genesis, after Adam and Eve had consumed the forbidden fruit, their eyes were opened and they realized their nakedness. They covered themselves by sewing fig leaves together and making aprons. Thus, from an Old Testament point of view, figs have been in existence since the inception of the world.
Secularly speaking, figs were possibly one of the first fruits cultivated by man. There is archeological evidence over 11,000 years old from the Jordan Valley suggesting that agriculture began with the fig.
Where Do Figs Come From?
Figs originated in Asia Minor and quickly spread throughout the entire Mediterranean region. The ancient Egyptians made a pastry of figs rolled in dough, the precursor to the modern day Fig Newton.
The Greeks valued figs so highly they forbade their export. Various civilizations through time have revered them as sacred and a sign of peace, fertility or prosperity. Clearly they played a vital role in the diets of various Mediterranean peoples for countless generations.
When Are Figs Available?
Fresh figs are available June through October. As Cato the Elder indirectly pointed out they are highly perishable. Store them in the fridge for no more than three days. Dried figs, made from ripe autumn specimens, naturally will last longer.
Figs are also sold canned in syrup. Figs are a nutritional powerhouse and contain a wide variety of vitamins and minerals. They are a good source of calcium, potassium, iron, fiber, and antioxidants.
There are hundreds of varieties of figs and thousands of cultivars. They range in color from a dark, purplish black to almost white, and in size from round to oval. One of the most popular, the Mission fig, is named after the Spanish Franciscan missionaries who introduced them to America.
How Are Figs Used in Cooking?
Figs are employed in multifarious savory and sweet dishes including jams, tarts, mousses, salads, purees and stuffings. In Europe, roasted figs are used to flavor coffee. The Arabs ferment them into a spirit. And in many cultures they are still relied on for sundry medicinal purposes.