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  • Susan Low

A taste of the Med (at home)

Updated: Sep 11, 2023

One whiff of ripe figs and I’m transported. I’m instantly in a place of long, late-summer afternoons filled with hazy heat, the sound of lapping waves and the promise, come dusk, of a cold glass of ouzo and a plateful or two of crisp fried seafood. To my brain, figs = Med.

But the figs pictured here come not from southern Europe, but from south London, from a tree near our allotment, and they’re as succulent as figs can be. It’s the first time I’ve actually eaten British-grown figs. I’d heard and assumed that figs couldn’t be bothered to ripen in these inhospitable northern reaches.

Yet, here they are. The scent is gorgeous and, picked straight from the tree, still warm from the sun, they knock the socks off anything you could buy from a greengrocer. This summer won’t go down as the best ever, yet it seemed – anecdotally, at least – to have been a good ‘fig summer’. Several food lovers have told me that their usually recalcitrant fig trees had inexplicably borne armloads of luscious fruit.

After a bit of research, I’ve concluded (not necessarily correctly) that these are Brown Turkey figs, one cultivar of many of Ficus carica. Figs, ‘probably’ the first cultivated fruit, have been grown for more than 11,000 years and have been planted in Britain since Roman times.

Food writer Florence White, in Good Things in England, published in 1932, points to the south coast as a top spot for the country’s fig production. She writes: “Green figs in England are as a rule associated with West Tarring, near Worthing, where there is a famous fig garden in which one particular tree is said to have been planted by Thomas à Becket.” Fresh green figs, she says, “make an excellent jam or sweet pickle. They may also be preserved whole.” Her recipe for green fig jam, calls for no fewer than 3lbs of ripe green figs – note the word ‘ripe.

In older British cookbooks, fig recipes most often feature dried ones – most famously perhaps the ‘figgy pudding’ of the well-known Christmas carol, itself a precursor to plum pudding, which in turn begat the Christmas pudding. It’s ironic that a fruit so redolent of summer is in Britain eaten at a time of year when the days are shortest and darkest.

Biting into the soft flesh of a fully ripe fresh fig is a summertime joy – but the aromatic leaves shouldn’t be ignored. In figurative language, a fig leaf is something we use to cover our embarrassment or to give a sense of imagined protection or security – something to hide behind. But actual fig leaves can also be a cook’s best friend and add layers of interest to dishes cooked with them, not hide them.

Use fresh fleshy leaves and wrap them around whole fish before grilling or barbecuing and it will protect the flesh from burning while imbuing it with a subtly fruity taste. Do the same with feta or lamb as Greek cooks do. You can also macerate fig leaves in cream, then whip it up until fluffy and cloud-like and with an ethereal figgy aroma.

This time last year I was in Urla, on Turkey’s Cesme Peninsula, a finger of land west of Izmir that juts out into the Aegean Sea. It’s a place of ancient grapevines and olive trees, and is now attracting some of the country’s best chefs. I was a guest at the chic, newish wine-country restaurant with rooms called Teruar, where Italian-trained chef Osman Serardoglu works his magic.

His multi-course tasting showed off his skills with taste and texture – but the dish that stood out for me was his tortelloni, which he served in a tomato sauce flavoured with fig leaf. It had a whisper of ripe fig, almost imperceptible and, like a fading memory, near-impossible to pin down.

It’s a taste that has stayed with me and this summer I managed to replicate it with some success. The recipe is simple: gently cook onion and garlic in lots of olive oil, add ripe tomatoes (or, in a pinch, tinned), then add a torn fig leaf or two, as you would bay leaf. Let the sauce simmer slowly and your kitchen will take on the leaves’ gentle aroma.

I’ve made a couple of big batches of fig-leaf tomato sauce in late summer’s dying days (helped along by the Med-style heat we’ve been enjoying this September). I’ll pull it out from the freezer in winter’s grey and soggy depths, and enjoy it as I would a ray of sunshine just when it’s most needed.

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