In warmer weather it is always great to eat outdoors whenever possible, and small shared plates of charcuterie, fresh vegetables, cheeses and olives are always a hit served with a baguette and butter, and accompanied with a variety of fruit; oranges and clementines are great, and sliced apples, red and green grapes, and one of our favourite fruits that make the spread elegant and delicious, fresh figs.
A member of the mulberry family, figs grow on the ficus tree. Figs are one of the oldest cultivated plants; archaeological evidence suggests they were cultivated even before grains like wheat and barley, having been farmed as far back as 9,400 B.C.E. in the Jordan Valley, as they are native to the Middle East and parts of Asia. Nowadays they are grown in most temperate climates, including our own. Figs were introduced to North America in the eighteenth century and have been flourishing here ever since, especially California. Figs were brought there by Spanish missionaries, who cultivated the Mission Fig, still one of the most popular of the dozens of cultivars now available. You can even have a go at growing figs in your own backyard!
For many of us, our first exposure to the fig was as the chewy, seedy paste in fig newtons, the “educational toy” of cookies. From there many of us graduated to dried figs, again with the chewy; packed like sardines into tightwad packages, often strung together with twine, they made a great snack on the road, eaten mirthlessly with nuts or chopped into a trail mix. Neither of these renditions of the fig do it justice; indeed, a dried fig is to a fresh fig as a raisin is to a grape.
Fresh figs, on the other hand, are not dry, they are soft, with a smooth exterior and plump, seedy flesh; juicy and exploding with flavour. Nutritionally speaking, they are high in fibre, so are a good natural laxative and an excellent choice for foods that assist with weight loss. Figs are a good source of the antioxidant vitamins A, E and K, as well as minerals like copper, magnesium and iron. They are high in potassium as well as calcium too, so they are good for maintaining bone density and thwarting the onset of osteoporosis. Be warned; these little beauties are perishable; they do not last long, so make sure to keep them refrigerated until you eat them, which you can do by gently washing them and removing the stems before slicing or eating whole. On a cheese plate, they marry well with fresh ricotta and soft goat cheese and fatty nuts like Brazil nuts or walnuts.
Focaccia with Figs, Goat Cheese and Caramelized Onions
Makes nine 3 inch square pieces
1 nine-inch square Focaccia
½ cup soft Goat cheese, softened to room temperature
2 tbs olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
Heat the olive oil to medium in a frying pan. Slice the onions and place in warm frying pan. Season with salt and pepper. Cook gently for 10 minutes or until onion softens and caramelizes to a nice golden colour. Remove from heat and set aside. Wash, stem, and slice the figs thin. Spread goat cheese over focaccia, then arrange onions over this, and top with sliced figs. Cut into nine square pieces and serve immediately.