I have the good luck to live in a neighborhood where people walk and where the occasional fruit tree, if it is in reach of the public thoroughfare, is available for gleaning with the home owner’s permission. That is how I came to enjoy some delectable red-fleshed figs that grow in complete anonymity – yet within an arm’s length of the sidewalk, just a few doors down from my house.
No doubt my neighbor has a fig tree in the front yard because it is fast-growing and has plenty of shading foliage, because he certainly never harvests his figs, which fall or wither on the tree each year. I have grown accustomed on my nightly walks to watch the twice-annual harvest of figs develop and ripen, and I have just finished enjoying my second picking of these marvelous fruits. I don’t even know the name of the fig variety I have been enjoying (I believe it might be an Adriatic) – but it is the kind with green skin and a red center that reminds me of strawberry jam.
I enjoy watching the two fruitings of the fig tree – first in early summer when the tree’s new growth sends up spirited shoots and fruit, with the latent second crop following right behind and already visible next to the first fruit. This year, the second harvest was short but very sweet – by the time I walked by one evening, the bottoms of the uppermost figs were already split open and some of them were also showing signs of fermenting and drying. I managed to harvest a dozen or more figs in different stages of ripeness and took them home to enjoy. I also began to ponder the nature of pear-shaped fruit and its irresistible attraction to both the eye and palate.
August is a wonderful month to enjoy figs, even if you have to wait until your weekly farmers’ market to find them. Figs enjoy a hot, dry climate, but they grow in several counties in California. Few farmers specialize in fig-growing, but more and more farmers are bringing in one or two varieties of figs and when they do, customers buy them. Everett DaVall has been bringing in some brown turkey figs from his date ranch in Coachella. Brown Turkeys are dependably tasty figs with a brown and yellow skin that appear early in the second fig harvest. Pudwill Farm, best known for its year-round supply of raspberries and blackberries, also brings in a good supply of Black Mission figs – the most commonly dried figs. Black Missions have a dark purple skin and a golden interior. Their thin skins make them highly susceptible to damage, but the damage is usually superficial and does not affect the figs’ quality or flavor. Bob Polito, a citrus grower from San Diego County, has a wonderful yellow-skinned fig called Diana with a honey-flavored white interior. This oversized fig is utterly delicious eaten fresh or cooked. Ripe figs have an almost maddening array of tastes and textures, and one basket of mature figs is guaranteed to yield a range of flavors. Figs freeze well and can be taken out and cooked in any number of ways later in the year. Because of their short harvest season and high perishability, figs should be consumed on the spot or soon thereafter when purchased ripe at the farmers’ market. A delicious way to enjoy fresh figs is to cut them in half lengthwise and grill them, allowing them to caramelize in their own sugar. They can then be enjoyed as a dessert or breakfast with any number of sweet or savory cream toppings.Fresh pears – the other perishable fruit with the, well, pear shape – at the farmers’ markets, if properly handled after harvest, are not really fresh at all but have been carefully chilled and allowed to fully ripen for about three weeks on the farm. Mike Cirone of See Canyon, as well as other observant pear growers, attest to the fact that pears benefit from a two-week chilling period after harvest to allow their flavors to develop. Bartlett pears in particular that hang on the trees too long to ripen develop a “grainy” texture. Mike’s yellow Bartletts had a smooth, creamy texture and rich, full flavor. I say “had” because Mike’s See Canyon Bartlett harvest is already over for the year, but fortunately there are some other farmers including John Tenerelli and Jeff Riegert, that will be bringing Bartlett pears to market for the next few weeks. Take your yellow pears home and enjoy with with cheese and a sweet wine, but be sure not to re-introduce them to the fridge. When they are brought to market fully yellow, they are ready to eat. Mike Cirone also grows a lovely, dense and crunchy d’Anjou pear that is distinctive for its russeted green skin as well as the petite Seckel pear, a diminutive green/gold pear that is the only true American pear. Seckels and d’Anjous do not need refrigeration and will continue to mellow on a cool kitchen counter. the Seckel pear has a flavor that has been described as “vinous” – redolent of wine – and I have savored that flavor in particular this year. Soon Mike will also bring in the longnecked Bosc pears, with their golden russet skin and tender, crisp flesh. Boscs and Comices may be refrigerated after purchase unlike the Bartlett, Seckel and d’Anjou, but the watchword for pear purchases is “don’t overbuy.” Buy only what you plan to eat for the week and get some more at the next market. Pears are not storage fruits like Asian pears or kiwis. Like their pear-shaped companions, the figs, pears are meant to be enjoyed sooner rather than later for best eating value.