In the 15th and 16th centuries, Spanish ships heading to the New World always carried olive trees and vines with them because the colonies in the Indies envisioned a self-sufficient community with orchards and vineyards. This did not come to fruition in most cases, mostly due to the weather. In fact, some of the first olive trees planted in the New World were in Mexico City, but did not bear well. From there, cuttings made it into Baja California with better results. New cuttings from the trees in Baja made it into the Mission of San Diego de Alcalá, thus began the olive industry in California.
The Spanish Padres introduced mainly three varieties of olives: the large Sevillano (called Gordal in Spain, since it’s a fleshy, large olive and “gorda” means fat in the Castilian language), the round Manzanillo (manzana means apple, and this one has the shape of a little apple) and the one that, with time, was named Mission (its origin is still under debate), is present in all the missions along the Californian coast and inland, and in many olive groves currently in production.
Because missions strived to be self-sufficient, other crops like grains, beans, mustard and fruit trees were introduced. Among the latter, California was blessed with figs. A particular variety that we see today growing in so many towns across the state became known as the Mission fig.
The Mission fig is black with a bright red pulp inside. It has a generous first crop (in Spanish called “breva”), which lends itself to cooking, since its pulp is firmer and not so sweet, and a good main crop of delightful, naturally sweet fruit. This main crop sometimes comes during summer, and sometimes during the beginning of autumn, according to location and climate.
When I lived in the friendly town of Chico, every summer I gathered a good deal of street figs. I also gathered figs on a regular basis from the tree which used to grace the kitchen window of my apartment. One day I woke up and the tree was no longer there. The new manager cut it down because its roots may have compromised a wall along my patio. I remember being totally shocked by the fact that someone (indeed a very friendly guy) could be so insensitive to the wonderful living creature that the fig tree was. It gave shade, fruit and beauty to us year after year. I’m sure plenty of other solutions were available, but in this fast-paced culture of efficiency and profit, it was easier to cut down the tree than to find a kinder and more satisfying solution that would have benefitted the common good of our community.
There are many ways in which one can enjoy figs, and some recipes allow for olive oil
to play a part. In fact, there are some crossover points between these two magical trees. They not only share some history, but in this case variety name. Some olive varieties have aromas that evoke fig leaves and that’s the name given to the descriptor for them (“higuera” in Spanish, after the name of the olive tree, though it’s the particular smell of the leaf that resembles these perfume notes). Sometimes olive oils made with green Manzanillo and Barouni varieties have a hint of that scent, though you find this more often in some Spanish olive oils rather than in Californian oils.
Here are a couple of recipe suggestions for the figs found at your farmers market, or even better, for figs picked by you. Use your judgment and taste to determine quantities for ingredients:
- Figs with Mozzarella and Prosciutto — This is a typical recipe that can also be done with ricotta or goat cheese. Cut the figs in half, place some cheese on top and a layer of prosciutto on top of the cheese. Bake at 375 degrees F for 5 minutes, or until the cheese softens. Wait a bit longer if you like the prosciutto crispy. Two options to finish: EVOO or a mix of EVOO and honey.
- Figs with Walnuts, Celery and Roquefort Cheese — This is a version of the stuffing of a typical empanada that we have in Argentina. Walnuts, celery and Roquefort (Gorgonzola works well, too) blend together in an unexpected way. Blanch celery for 3 minutes, chop finely, chop the walnuts and mix everything until the blend is a chunky paste. Spread on sliced figs and bake as in the previous recipe. Finish with EVOO.
- Figs with Balsamic Vinegar and Olive Oil — Balsamic is so misused in the U.S. that finding a proper use for it is a true pleasure. The original use for the real balsamic (not the fake stuff abundant in supermarkets made with acetic acid and caramel, forbidden ingredients for the real balsamic vinegar in Modena) was on ice cream and strawberries. Figs are great with good quality balsamic as well. Adding a touch of olive oil after the balsamic can make the flavor quite interesting. In this case, use a robust olive oil with good bitterness that will act as a counterpoint to the sweetness of the fig. It will add depth to the flavors as it happens when you drizzle an intense olive oil in a butternut squash soup.
There are many other ways to delight in figs. In the next blog entry we’ll share more fig recipes, since they offer fun and pleasure, and once again, the grateful realization of how generous California is when it comes to the bounty of its land. Salud!
On behalf of the Pacific Sun Olive Oil team,