Italians have been eating figs for a very long time -- figs, together with cheese, bread, and olives, were among the staple foods of the Roman Legions -- and many of the immigrants who came to the Americas from the South, where they grow very well, planted fig trees where they settled, harvesting the bounty in the summer and covering the trees in the winter if it got cold. Indeed, for many a garden wasn't quite a garden unless it had a fig tree.
Now times have alas changed, and most of us have to make do with what we can find in the markets. Selecting fresh figs is easy, though one caveat does apply: They should come from where it's hot. South Italy is noticeably hotter than Tuscany in the summer, and the figs Elisabetta and I harvested from the trees outside the house we rented in Santa Maria di Leuca (on the very heel of the boot) were richer and more luscious than anything we have ever had in Tuscany. Returning to selecting, figs range from pale green though deeper blackish burgundy red, and should look firm, with a rather voluptuous turgid roundness to them. There should be no whitish sap emerging from the stems, though a drop or two of nectar from the depression at the base of the fig is OK, and slight splits in the skin (not too deep) are also acceptable. If they're overripe they become very sweet, but can also begin to ferment; some people like this combination of flavors while others do not.
Because they spoil quite easily you should plan on using your figs the day you buy them. Though serving them at the end of the meal obviously comes to mind -- they are, after all, fruit -- they also go very nicely with thinly sliced prosciutto as an antipasto; I have seen a French way that involves wrapping the figs in prosciutto and grilling them, but Italians simply serve the cut figs with the prosciutto, much the way they serve melons with prosciutto. If the figs are good and the prosciutto their equal, the combination is perfect as is.
Further Ideas: First, Some Sweets
Fig Ice Cream: Gelato di Fichi
Fig Marmalade, or Marmellata di Fichi
Rich, sensual, and easy to make too.
Stuffed Figs Calabrian Style, or Fichi Ripieni alla Calabrese
Figs in syrup, stuffed with walnuts and almonds: Rich and tasty.
Fig Concentrate: Cotto di Fichi
A rich Puglian fig concentrate.
Figgy Bavarian Cream: Bavarese ai Fichi
A tasty, figgy, cinnamon-laced Bavarian cream.
Caramelized Figs, or Fichi Caramellati
Fresh figs are one of the nicest things about late summer. If you caramelize figs, you can carry this bounty into the fall, when they are perfect with cheese, or even with boiled meats. A jar of caramelized figs is also a perfect gift.
Caramelized Figs with Mascarpone Cheese: Fichi Caramellati al Mascarpone
A rich, tasty late summer dessert.
Crostata con Fichi Freschi
An elegant crostata with a rich fresh fig topping. Delightful and perfect for an important occasion.
Torta Rovesciata coi Fichi
A tasty upside-down cake with fresh figs.
Fig and Peach Cake: Torta di Fichi e Pesche
An unusual cake made with peaches and figs.
Panettone Stuffed with Whipped Cream and Candied Citron: Panettone Ripieno
Stuffed Panettone, with a rich filling made with whipped cream and candied citron, and a red wine sauce with figs and spices: Perfect for Christmas Eve.
Sweet Figgy Cookies: Cosi Duci di Ficu
Sicilian Christmas cookies made with figs.
Brandied Figs: Fichi Sotto Spirito
Uncle Guerrando's spirited figs pack a punch. But are very good.
Canned Figs With CinnamonBR>Years ago we rented a house in Puglia that had a fig tree at the door. They were like nothing I had ever had before, rich luscious, and seductive. If we had figs like that in Tuscany, I'd be canning them like this for the winter months.
And Finally, Something (Slightly) Savory
Spaghettini di Venere
An unusual creamy spaghetti sauce in which the voluptuous sweetness of figs is balanced by a hint of anchovy.
Filet with Figs, or Filetto ai Fichi
Filet is a rich foil for all sorts of things, including figs. A voluptuous dish!
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