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Seduction by fig

Now that so many Americans are discovering its pleasures, farmers are sending more fresh fruit to market and developing delicious -- and gorgeous -- new varieties.

September 06, 2006|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

IT is almost impossible to describe a fresh fig without veering into pornography. The skin is nearly human in its tenderness. And the pulp within is as luscious as some exotic cross between fruit jam and honey. You don't so much bite into a fig as engage it in a long, sweet kiss.

They're so beautiful and so fragile-seeming that you'd think they must be available only at the most exclusive markets and at the highest prices. But fresh figs are now showing up in mainstream stores, costing not that much more than an out-of-season apple.

It's ironic that so many people know the fig only as the first name of a cookie named Newton -- that this most sensuous of fruits is familiar only after it has been dried, ground to a paste and used to stuff a healthful high-fiber snack. It's like knowing Angelina Jolie only for her charity work.

Ironic, certainly, but also perfectly understandable. Fig Newtons are still the final resting place for many of the figs that are grown in California. (Nabisco, which makes the cookie, is the biggest buyer of fig paste in the world.)

But an increasing percentage of the state's fig crop is being picked fresh. The fresh fig harvest, which had been inching up during the last decade or so, nearly doubled between 2003 and 2005. One major shipper says his fresh business increased more than 40% in the last year, and that it's nearly triple what it was in 2000.

Though it is true that farmers markets kept the fervor for fresh figs alive when they were otherwise almost impossible to find, the volume and variety of figs offered at them doesn't seem to have increased. Instead, it's places such as Trader Joe's, Whole Foods and Costco, where you can find stacks of figs packed in clear plastic clamshell boxes, that are fueling the new interest.

A mystery to many

FRESH still accounts for just less than 10% of the total fig harvest, but from all accounts its growth should continue. The two largest growers of figs, who farm more than half of the acreage in the state, both say their goal is to get fresh figs up to between 25% and 33% of their total harvests.

Before they can do that, though, there are some hurdles to overcome. Most notable among them? Most folks know almost nothing about fresh figs.

Though they are one of the oldest domesticated fruits in the world, mentioned repeatedly in the Bible, figs are a brand new food to most Americans. A recent survey found that only 9% of consumers had knowingly eaten a fig -- dried or fresh -- in the last year (apparently, that first-name cookie connection wasn't a joke). The only other fruit that ranked as low was the guava.

That leaves fig growers with a decidedly bad news-good news marketing situation.

"There are two sides to the story," says Richard Matoian, manager of the California Fig Advisory Board and the guy in charge of promoting figs, fresh and dried. "Of course, you can say, 'Boy, isn't it terrible that there is such a low percentage of people who have tried figs recently?'

"But the opposite side is that now we have an opportunity to introduce a new fruit to a lot of people who don't have a lot of baggage with it. There aren't very many people who say, 'I just don't like figs.' "

The fig is a most peculiar fruit. In fact, botanically it's not a fruit. It's a flower -- or, more accurately, a cluster of flowers -- turned inside out. The peel is the fleshy base; the pulp on the inside is the collective pistils and stamens of many individual blooms. The actual fruit is what we think of as the fig's seeds -- tiny dried fruits called achenes (just like those on the outside of a strawberry), which each contain an even tinier real seed.

This arrangement, with all the important parts hidden away, creates significant disadvantages when it comes to reproduction. Figs have evolved to get around this in a couple of ways. First, some common fig varieties such as Brown Turkey and Black Mission are self-pollinating -- all of the action takes place inside the flower without any help from insects. (And some new varieties don't require pollination -- you can tell these because you won't feel any seeds popping when you bite into them.)

Other fig varieties, including some that have been most important historically, require more particular arrangements. These figs can be pollinated only with the help of a tiny gnat-size wasp, which crawls into the hole at the base of the fig to spread the pollen.

This presented a seemingly insurmountable problem in the early days of the fig industry, before the turn of the century. The Calimyrna, then regarded as the queen of figs in the rest of the world, simply could not be made to bear fruit in California until this relationship was discovered and the fig wasp could be imported along with the trees. Even today, in springtime all over the Central Valley, you'll see 'Calimyrna' orchards decorated with hanging brown paper bags that contain colonies of these wasps.

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