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GARDEN FRESH

Give a Fig a Sunny Home

August 24, 1995|SYLVIA THOMPSON

Mad as I am about apples, if I'd been Adam, I wouldn't have been tempted until Eve held out a fig.

While apples commonly stand in for the Bible's "tree of the fruit of knowledge," figs are the most sensual fruits, both to look at and to eat. I love the ideal in Solomon's kingdom: "every man under his vine and under his fig tree."

For our part, we do our best.

I eat my figs plain. But every morning in their season, my father sliced chunks of figs into a bowl, sprinkled them with powdered sugar, cream and cinnamon and ate them with a big spoon.

In her chafing-dish days, my mother shook whole peeled figs with lemon zest and melted butter in the blazer until the figs were hot, then flamed them with brandy.

Life is simpler now. She drapes long slivers of lemon zest over thin-skinned strawberry-fleshed fig halves and dollops them with lemon sorbet. (I confess I don't approve of peeling figs; as tough as the skin may be, it's part of the voluptuous fig-eating experience.)

My husband wraps whole figs in bacon and turns them on the grill until the sweet figs are melting-hot on the inside and the salty bacon is crisp on the outside: This may just be the ultimate fig treat.

On the other hand, there are the pickled figs our friend M.F.K. Fisher brought us one summer years ago. They were luscious black figs in vinegary syrup dark as treacle that had baked slowly slowly overnight. From my notes, this is how they were prepared:

Weigh fresh, moist, ripe black figs, then stick each with a clove. Lay them in a single layer in a baking dish in which they'll just fit. For every pound of figs, heat a rounded half-cup each of light brown and granulated sugar with a scant quarter-cup of red wine vinegar and a pinch of pickling spice until the sugar dissolves. Pour hot over the figs and bake uncovered at 200 to 225 degrees overnight, turning the figs gently once or twice. (Sometimes you have to add more syrup.) Keep in a covered crock in the refrigerator until eaten.

Eccentric and mysterious, these figs are the perfect garnish for small roasted game hens--imagine the teardrop shapes and burnished colors. Thread a strip of lemon zest through the figs on the plate for a dash of light. Or save the figs for a holiday ham and light them with furls of orange zest.

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The fruit itself is a bit of a mystery. In fact, what we regard as the fruit isn't, botanically speaking, a fruit. By definition, a fruit contains its seeds within it (blackberries, kumquats, tomatoes and such). The myriad tiny bits that crunch when you eat a fig seem like seeds, but in fact they are the fruits; the fig is merely a receptacle to hold them.

And not all figs are alike. Smyrna figs, which have been cultivated and dried into straw-colored necklaces in Greece since ancient times, are different from the figs we grow in most home gardens because they must be pollinated.

Like all varieties, a Smyrna has its flower inside the receptacle that we call a fig. Their fertilization involves a complex dance between wild figs and tiny male and female blossoms and tiny wasps that die in the pollination process. Smyrnas are not for the amateur.

Fortunately, a second type of fig tree was developed in classical times, our cherished common fig. It doesn't require a suicidal wasp, being mercifully self-fruitful, with male and female flowers within the receptacle.

Whatever the type, a fig tree can live 100 years, and most can reach 30 feet in height. Imagine leaving such a legacy!

In summer there's the fun of watching the tree shoot up--as much as a foot a year, and they are magnificent providers of shade.

What's more, as one of the orchardists at Dave Wilson Nursery in Hickman, Calif., told me, "Fig plants are among the easiest trees to grow--they'll conform to just about any situation you want."

If you have five square feet of soil in full sun, you can grow one fig tree and prune it into a many-branched shrub or a delightful umbrella and keep it at five to six feet in all directions.

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If you have five square feet of space on a wall or fence, set the tree at the base and send the fig's branches up and out, training them in as casual or formal a tracery as you like. In cool summer areas, a south-facing wall is ideal for trapping heat. Where summers are hot, an east-facing wall is best; whitewash the limbs so the plant won't bake. This method, called espalier, is a venerable approach to growing trees.

If you have a little more space, try high-density planting. In an area eight by nine feet, the folks at Dave Wilson advise, plant two trees in one hole, 18 inches apart. Given an area 10 by 10, you can plant four trees in one hole, 18 inches apart in a square. In each case, the yield of fruit will be about the same as if it were one tree, but you can have not only successive ripening--figs for the longest possible season--but also a splendid assortment of colors and flavors.

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