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Thanksgiving is also time for ripe figs

October 12, 2014
unripe-fig-on-trree

A fig ripening on the branch and this time it’s not a figment of my imagination.

Even as I write, plump green figs are ripening on select trees across Vancouver.

But as tasty as they are now, I know the figs will only get tastier the longer I wait — every extra day means a substantial increase in their sweetness — only waiting is so difficult.

But I moved to Vancouver in 1980 and only learned a few months ago that fig trees grew in Vancouver, so one could say that  I’ve been waiting nearly 35 years —  and what’s another week or so?

Figs are something for Vancouverites to be thankful for

fig-cut-open

A soft, tasty but only semi-ripe green fig.

My casual search for fig trees in and around the Fairview neighbourhood began in August and after a fairly shaky start — my first “fig tree” turned out to be a tree full of green walnuts — I quickly identified four trees all growing closely related varieties of green figs.

Fairview is the neighbourhood where I now spend most of my time in but it is probably not the best neighbourhood in which to find fig trees. Only one of the trees I’ve found is in central Fairview, the other three are nearer the boundary with East Vancouver.

I’m told the farther you go into East Vancouver the more fig trees you will find — planted by the large numbers of Italian immigrants who once settled in the area.

I actually lived in East Van for 16 years — just off Commercial Drive — but if I saw any fig trees in all that time (and I probably saw hundreds) I saw them without realizing what they were.

You can chalk that up to an upbringing on the Prairies where figs do not occur on trees but mostly on supermarket shelves in the form of the high fructose brown seedy paste in fig newton cookies.

It’s true that as a person with one foot in the tiny Chinese community of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, I was aware of dried figs but otherwise, based on the slim evidence of the cookies, I couldn’t have told you if figs were animal, vegetable or mineral.

Figs and kiwis and lemons are not things I naturally associate with Canada’s short growing season. In fact, all three grow in Metro Vancouver’s unique rain forest climate but I would doubt they could grow anywhere else  in Canada east of the Rocky Mountains, despite the claims of gardeners in the Central Canadian province of Ontario who claim figs like winter.

Summer bids a sweet farewell in the form of figs

This fig, droopingly soft, with cracking skin, is ripe.

This fig, droopingly soft, with cracking skin, is ripe.

I can tell you that figs undergo a real taste metamorphosis because in my impatience I began sampling them in late August.

A very unripe fig is a menace to your taste buds and your mouth, It has a woody, seedy texture and the skin is actually acidly astringent. At this stage in a fig’s development it may be suitable for pressing on a wound but not for eating.

Two or three weeks on, in mid September, a fig begins to show its true personality.

If, instead of pulling it off, you cut it off the tree branch, the cut oozes a white sap that tastes more than a little of coconut. The flesh is still seedy but soft, along with the skin which has lost most of all its acidity. The overall taste impression, for me at least, was green and coconut and — believe it or not — Brussels sprouts. This is all good because I love both coconut and Brussels sprouts.

And there’s a dramatic increase in sweetness.

ripest-fig-cut-open

This ripe fig (sans stem) is a sweet complexity of flavours that fairly melts in your mouth.

From now until full ripeness the figs will get progressively softer, plumper and much sweeter and you can happily eat them skin, seeds and all.

The originally strong hints of coconut and greenness become subtle notes in the fig’s sweet taste.

I was naively expecting a fig to change colour as it ripened — for the skin to become brown and for the seedy centre to turn crimson.

But figs start out in different colours to begin with: white, green, red, purple and black. I don’t know if any of them change colour as they ripen but green figs stay green from the bitter beginning to the sweet end.

As for the seeds, in some of the green figs the seeds turn red and in some they take on a brownish golden colour. All the ripest figs I’ve eaten so far were all off the trees bearing brown seeded figs.

A properly ripe fig is actually one you might think is ready for the compost pile if you didn’t know better. As the fig ripens the skin seems to thin and as the fruit swells with sweet goodness the thin skin cracks. The ripe fig fairly droops on the branch and is very soft to the touch.

One way to eat such a ripe fig is to simply detach it off of its stem, close your eyes and pop the whole fig in your mouth and let the little sugar bomb detonate on your taste buds.

One resident, east of Cambie and 16th Avenue — what some still call South Vancouver — told me she preferred her fresh ripe figs hot from the barbeque with Prosciutto and brie and strange as that sounded to me I was sure she was telling the truth. Click the images to enlarge them.

One Comment
  1. Slowcrow permalink

    Well, the things i just found are walnut……. Speaking of CBC, there was a spot on the weekend morning show re: the figs of Vancouver (it was quite awhile ago tho). Thanks for your detailed post. Talked to a guy briefly yesterday who was excited about the rain. Turns out he is a mushroom stalker….. I really should know more about those things. For years i have drank the Kool-aid, believing if it doesn’t come in a Styrofoam package, DO NOT EAT IT!! I know that’s not true for eggs and milk products……… (Guess i will have to figure out tweeting too. No where’s my slide rule???)

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