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Flavouring the Garden: Figs, Dates and a Sweet New Year

As we come to end of January (and Chinese New Year!), I wanted to have a recipe involving figs, dates, which, along with honey, were given as gifts at the start of the Roman calendar to ensure the new year would be a sweet one, as Ovid discovers when he asks the god Janus of their purpose:

‘“What is the meaning of the dates and wrinkled figs, and the gift of shining honey in a snow-white jar?” “The omen is the reason,” says he, “so that flavour may follow what ensues, and the year continue sweet on the journey it has begun”’

– Fasti 1.185-189

Figs!Having covered dates in my previous post, we now turn to one of my favourite fruits. I love the myriad of textures you get in quick succession when biting into a fig – first the smooth softness of the skin, next the chewiness of the flesh and then the grainy, crunchiness of the seeds. They are right at the top of my (admittedly rather long) list of most moreish fruits and never linger long in my fruit bowl.

Figs are among the oldest fruits cultivated in the Mediterranean, their succulent, honeyed sweetness never loosing appeal over time and their popularity carrying through the Italian Renaissance where fig trees were highly prized out of all fruits grown in the garden, to today where the timeless combination of figs and Parma ham remains an irresistible classic.

Some things never change, it would seem, as the promise of sweet, fleshy figs is enough to distract even a servant of Apollo, the raven, who is commanded by the god to bring clear spring water  for ritual use. On sighting a fig-tree (and no doubt enticed by its wonderfully fragrant leaves), the raven succumbs to temptation and abandons his god-given mission, instead waiting beneath for the fruit to ripen, such is the allure of the ripe fig:

‘There was a fig-tree standing thickly covered with fruit that was still hard. He tests it with his beak, but it wasn’t ready for picking. Forgetting his order, he is said to have sat beneath the tree waiting for the fruit to become sweet in the slow passage of time.’

– Fasti 2.253-256

By succumbing to temptation, the raven is unable to complete the task and lies to Apollo, who his trickery and condemns him:

‘This is your sentence: as long as the milky fig shall cling to the tree, you will not drink cold water from any spring.’

– Fasti 2.264

Ficus_carica

Fig Tree (Ficus carica)

The fig tree (Ficus carica) was commonly grown in ancient Roman gardens, with evidence of numerous varieties cultivated and were vibrantly depicted in a number of frescoes.  To continue the story of the founders of Rome that began in my previous post, it is beneath a fig tree that the abandoned Romulus and Remus come to rest. This is where they are found by the she-wolf who nurses them and Ovid claimed that the very same fig-tree, called the Rumina, stood at the Lupercal, the cave where the twins were found (Fasti 2.415-417).

Fig Tree, House of the Orchard, Pompeii

Fig Tree, House of the Orchard, Pompeii

Fig Basket, Villa Poppaea, Oplontis

Fig Basket, Villa Poppaea, Oplontis

Fortunately Scappi uses dried figs predominantly, which is handy because as much as I adore fresh figs, they won’t be in season until the summer so the fresh fig recipes will have to wait until then. In the meantime, we have the rather unappetizingly-named ‘sops’ to look forward to, or more simply, figs and dates on toast:

 To prepare sops with various dried fruits
Get prunes and let them soak in warm water. After that, cook them in white wine with sugar, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon ground together. When they are done, have slices of toast ready in dishes and put with prunes on them with the decoction. Serve them hot with sugar over top. You can also do dried visciola cherries or halved dates and dried figs the same way.

– The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, Book VI, Recipe 257

IngredientsIngredients

75g dried figs
75g dates
half bottle white wine
50g caster sugar
couple cloves
teaspoon nutmeg
teaspoon cinnamon
2 thick slices bread

Method

  • Place the sugar, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon in a pan, pour in the white wine and bring to a simmer

Pan

  • Halve the dates and figs, then add the to the pan
  • Simmer for 15 minutes until the wine has reduced and the fruit is softened
  • Cut the bread into chunky slices and toast – you’ll need them like door stops to soak up all the juices!
  • Spoon your figs and dates onto the toast, sprinkle with sugar

Figs on ToastsAt this point in my blogging, I am getting a little disheartened with the majority of recipes thus far turning out varying shades of brown and looking pretty unappealing, but I have to say, this one was an all-time low! Whilst the cooking of this was highly enjoyable, as it filled the kitchen with a fragrant medley of spices that was so similar to mulled wine that I was plunged into a spice-induced daze of Christmas reminiscing as I stirred the pan, I was soon brought back to a harsh reality when I served it up and found myself presented with a heap of brown fruit on brown toast drizzled with brown sauce. Delightful. My sister summed it all up in the face she pulled when I asked her to try it – the same one she used to make when we were children and she’d just been presented with cauliflower cheese or spinach. My thoughts exactly, Susie. The taste wasn’t too bad: imagine a chunky fig/ date jam mixed with mulled wine, but I couldn’t manage more than a couple of bites because it was so heavy. All in all, it tasted only slightly better than it looked.

Having had my aesthetic sensibilities utterly shattered, I have resolved that my next Renaissance recipe will be beautiful, or at least, not brown.

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