BARBARA, Lebanon: The fig is popping up everywhere these days – whether in avant-garde dishes at high-end restaurants in New York or topping the lists of the latest super-foods. This “newly discovered” delicacy that’s all the rage, however, is steeped in tradition.
The midsummer Mediterranean fruit was revered in the Greek and biblical times, a symbol of peace, prosperity and fertility – long before the foodies of California began seeking it out for its high levels of fiber, potassium, calcium and iron. It is believed the first cultivation of figs began over 10,000 years ago in what is now the West Bank, making it one of the earliest domesticated plants.
In the the Bible’s Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve covered themselves with fig leaves after eating a forbidden fruit. In the Book of Deuteronomy, the fig is described as a spice and a year-round fruit.
In the Book of Matthew, Jesus finds a fig tree when he is hungry, but sees it bears leaves but not fruit and then curses the tree, which then withers. Another biblical reference to figs, often used to signify peace and prosperity, is found in Kings: “each man under his own fig and vine tree.”
The fig is also mentioned in Sura 95 of the Quran, named Al-Tin (fig in Arabic), opens with “By the fig and the olive.” In the Hadith, Prophet Mohammad is quoted as saying, “If I had to mention a fruit that descended from paradise, I would say this [the fig] is it because the paradisiacal fruits do not have pits.”
These days, the cooks and cultivators of figs in the fruit’s historical homeland are proud of its origins and happy about the modern-day renaissance it is enjoying.
Mohammad Naccache, who goes by his nickname Chef Mood, admits that he never liked figs until last year: “I didn’t like the shape and the texture.”
He gave it another go while looking for a different food to experiment with for his recipes. After a few tests in the kitchen he was hooked. He started making everything from the traditional fig jam to cheese and fig bread – and even fig ice cream. He also likes the fruit raw – served as part of a bigger spread or added to salads with a pinch of sugar and balsamic vinegar.
In fact, his conversion to a fig lover has made him something of an evangelizer, and he now actively encourages others to try the fruit, convinced that all it takes is the right dish to get them interested. On a recent trip to Switzerland for a food conference, he had his colleagues try his fig and cheese bread – an instant success.
For London-based food writer Anissa Helou, eating figs has always been a way of life.
“My first memories were of vendors knocking on our door in Beirut carrying beautiful wicker baskets full of incredibly fresh figs,” she recalls, “which they had picked that morning and which they were hawking from door to door, shouting out from the street ‘yalla ala teen’ – meaning come and get some figs.”
Even before that, she was told by relatives that she was fed copious amounts of figs at the age of 6 months by her Syrian aunt in Mashta Helou, the countryside of Homs.
“This didn’t stop me from adoring figs and eating kilos and kilos [in later life] when I could get hold of good ones,” she says.
Hanan Afreim sells figs on the side of the road in Barbara just outside of the northern coastal town of Amchit. For her, the affinity for the fruit came later on in life – when she married her husband, whose family had several vast orchards of green-skinned Kadota figs, the most common and oldest variety. Every summer, she greets her longtime loyal customers with the figs she believes to be the best in Lebanon.
“We have a lot of repeat customers,” Afreim says, sitting near her baskets of figs on the side of the road right in front of the family orchard.
“People come from all over Lebanon for our figs, because they’re known to be the tastiest. Maybe it’s the soil.”