Figs, dried or fresh, have always been a staple of the Mediterranean diet, leading some historians to believe that they may well be the world's oldest fruit. The black mission variety was introduced into this corner of the world by early Spanish explorers.
Fresh figs should be readily available to North County consumers into November.
Dick Baughman, director of Vista Farmer's Market, is one of the many fig fanciers in North County. In his orchard, set among the low, rolling hills of the Vista back country, he has more than 30 fig trees that produce nine varieties.
"My mother used to have black missions in her back yard," Baughman said. "That was the impetus for me to plant some trees after I retired. We sell a lot of figs to people nostalgic for the figs they tasted in their childhood."
Purple figs, black figs, and others the color of a brand new leaf, hang like exotic Christmas ornaments from the solid limbs. Baughman examines each fig for ripeness, gently twisting the plump, oversized, tear-shaped fruit off the tree.
"The Osborne prolifica variety is drier than the others," he said. As he presses open the fruit, a small drop of syrup forms on the bottom. "This is how you can tell that a fig is ripe," he said, pointing to the honey-like drop. "This is absolute perfection."
Such perfect ripeness is difficult to find in stores, however, since figs must be picked early to withstand transportation. "If the hole at the bottom of the fig is too large, bugs penetrate the fruit." The fruit will ferment if left on the tree too long.
The panache, a yellow- and green-striped variety with juicy, pink flesh, has a tendency to split when it ripens, Baughman says.
Kadotas, with their pale yellow skin, are best for canning because of their thick skin. The rounder, purple-fleshed brown turkey stands out with reddish-brown skin, while the white Conadria, a variety popular along the Adriatic, has a tendency to deteriorate faster than the others. The smaller, best-known black mission is also one of the tastiest, according to Baughman. "The softer the black mission gets, the sweeter it is."
Baughman reserves his highest praise for the Celeste, a small, purple fig with a jam-like sweetness: "It's very sweet, it's resistant to disease, and it dries beautifully on the tree."
Dick Souther, another Vista fig connoisseur, favors the Osborne prolifica. "As its name implies, the variety is very prolific, produces over a long period of time and is particularly sweet and juicy," he said.
Iran and Howard Jewett, who grow exotic fruit in Vista, say the Osborne prolifica is not only the most prolific of the half dozen varieties they grow, but also one of the sweetest.
"Still, nothing can top the Mission figs to make preserves," Iran Jewett said.
At Vista Farmer's Market, the Jewetts sell their figs individually. "So many customers don't know what a real fig tastes like that they prefer to buy them that way," Iran Jewett said.
Figs can be refrigerated for one or two days in a single layer. Poached in wine or baked, fresh and dried figs can enhance desserts, puddings and pies. Dried figs make an excellent snack food. A fresh, ripe fig contains just 40 calories, while its dried counterpart is much richer, with 250 calories per fruit. Figs contain up to 30 times the calcium found in other fruit, as well as potassium and B vitamins. With two growing seasons, and more than 160 varieties to choose from, figs have become almost a year-round crop.
No blossoms brighten the thick foliage of a fig tree, since the tree self-pollinates by way of minuscule seeds that make up the core of the fruit. The trees can be grown from a cutting. Although most varieties bear fruit within two to four years, a few have been known to produce in just a few months.
WHERE TO GET FRESH FIGS
Dick and Margo Baughman, Bloomin's Achers, 29933 Disney Lane, Vista CA 92084. 726-8545. Will pick on request with a day's notice. All varieties $1 a basket at Vista Farmer's Market. They also ship the fruit in egg cartons via UPS.
Dick and Suzie Souther, 2240 Elevado Road, Vista CA 92084. 758-7151. Will pick on request with a day's notice. Cost 75 cents a pound at Vista Farmer's Market.
Howard and Iran Jewett, 3062 Sumac Road, Fallbrook CA 92028. 723-0845. Will pick on request with a day's notice. Cost 10 cents to 20 cents apiece at Vista Farmer's Market.
Joe and Beverly Hale, Old Possum Farm, 2333 Via Subria, Vista, 92084. 941-4832. Cost 75 cents a pound at Vista Farmer's Market.
Greentree Grocers, 3560 Mt. Acadia Blvd., San Diego CA 92111. 560-1975. Sells brown turkeys and black missions, from $1.69 to $1.99 a pound, depending on availability.