Growing up, the most I knew about figs was that I loved Fig Newtons, one of my favorite cookies. And, as you can see, they contained very little real fig, and I am sure what little was there was mixed with fillers, corn syrup, etc. I am not knocking them, I just want people to understand this is not what a real fig is and/or this should not be your only experience of them.
I always knew it was some sort of fruit, but I never knew the shape of it, but only that like all fruits, it had seeds. While I normally don’t like seeds, I loved the crunch it gave to my after-school snack food.
It was not until I was a full grown adult of about 25 or so that I realized that this was no ordinary fruit. It was beloved by the Italians, even sacred, and not very easy to cultivate, grow, maintain or even get fruit from.
Going back in time in history, the fig is mostly grown from the regions of the Mediterranean, Middle East, and some parts of Europe. This would include everywhere from Afghanistan in Asia in the East to Portugal Western Europe. As it turns out, they are very sensitive plants and trees, and their native climate does not normally fall below 45F or 5C in temperature, so they need extra care here in North Jersey. More interesting, they are nearly as old as history itself, dating back thousands of years in The Bible to Adam & Eve in the Old Testament and into the New Testament.
So, my first real encounter with this fruit tree was early 1992 on a Saturday morning, my neighbor was making a lot of noise packing up his fig tree one October Autumn morning. I was sleeping in, because I had enjoyed happy hour the night before with my friends and coworkers in Manhattan. So not being able to sleep anymore, I went out to half jokingly ask him what all the noise was about. Without hesitation, he started to instruct me on how to help him. I gathered up fallen dried leaves from the surrounding trees as he tied the branches of the trees straight up and wrapped with that pink insulation you find in the attic. I continued to gather leaves to surround the insulation as he boarded up with plywood to protect the tree from the cold until the next spring.
Now having a better understanding of the fragility and bounty and prize of the fruit, never was this more understood and beloved as it was around Christmas time when the competition was to see who made the best Cucudati (Sicilian Fig Cookies), and yes, its truly authentic Sicilian, who could ever question that since Sicilians are a mix of Mediterranean, Arabic and Italian cultures.
Here you see something I recall from my childhood. Not a thin layer of figs like in the Fig Newton cookie, but a generous amount, much darker and richer, in delicious cookie dough, and glazed with confection an anisette frosting with dot sprinkles. Its rare that you can find this anymore. Even if you come across a local small Italian baker or bakery, rarely will they get these anything close to what they should be. They skimp on the fig, cover in dough and put much more frosting to make up for the sweetness of the figs. This photo was borrowed from this website, which also has the recipe, just keep in mind, that I only borrowed it for the photo and have not tried the recipe for taste/authenticity:
And from my oldwebsite, here are the basic ingredients, and remember, all ingredients and measurements will vary: 1lb dried figs; 1lb raisins; 1 jar honey; 1 cup chopped walnuts; 1 cup chopped almonds; lemon and orange rind; plus sherry wine. I am not sure where the sherry comes in, but I will find out.
Now if this seems like a lot of work, you can buy fig preserves. This one from Braswell’s is highly rated, but a bit too sweet for my tastes. No matter which brand you choose, they work if you cannot find or cultivate fresh figs.