Figs are like kisses: they can be miserable; they can be just so-so, or they can send you places you never imagined. With figs, as with kisses, so much depends on timing and attentiveness. You must wait, anticipating that something wonderful is close. If the moment opens (and you never know for sure until it does), the meeting can transport you. That is what figs offer: an intimate meeting worth savoring.
Of all the fruits I have ever tasted, a fresh fig is the most sensual: it has substance, the texture of moist satin and a sweetness that neither cloys nor bites. Its outer skin, when fully ripe, has a supple firmness: one nearly tears it with one's teeth. Then the juicy pink and cream flesh fills one's mouth.
Six or seven years ago, a friend, an octogenarian, gave me several cuttings from his fully mature plants. His mother-in-law, then aged 101, strolled to his fig trees to pick her own fresh figs. Now I know why. As he recommended, we planted them on the east side of my stone barn. The stones hold heat; the foundation shelters the trees from winter's harsh northwest winds. Some years, I have a bountiful harvest; other years very little. Much depends on the weather: figs need heat to mature.
This year, my trees were loaded with fruit. They start as small green nubs tucked at the basal joint of the leaf to the trunk. As they develop, they become the shape of breasts and almost the size of golf balls. Their skin turns from green to mottled mauve. This year, in early September, the temperatures plunged into the low 50's at night. I despaired that they would ripen. Last week, the temperatures climbed into the 80's with sunny skies. Now the figs are ripening—quickly. .
World-class gardener Alan Chadwick said that fruit is perfectly ripe for one moment. If one eats the fruit before its acid begins to turn to sugar, it actually harms you. At first, I was so eager to eat fresh figs that I chose figs that were slightly firm to the touch. Eating a fig like this is a take-it-or-leave-it experience. You would never rave about such a fig.
Soon, the fig softens; it develops a small circular hole in its bottom; then its skin cracks slightly around the hole. That crack reminds me of the birthing process: when what is inside is ready to be born, the outside tears slightly to allow for the birth. I found a fig like this this morning. I could have been tasting the sweet juiciness of life itself.
Now I harvest morning and evening—the fruit ripens that fast. If left on the plant, it will begin to rot; it will attract ants or birds. It cannot be shipped; it cannot even be stored overnight. This week, I may make preserves. I will cook them as soon as I get them to the kitchen. .
Today, a family came to help me in the garden. Two of the sons worked with me. We searched for the ripe fruit, then bent the tall, pliable, slender trunks to pull figs from the top of the ten-foot trees. The older boy felt each fig to make sure it was ripe. He had eaten figs that his sister had cooked earlier in the week with ginger. “They were GOOD!” he said as he smiled broadly.
Figs have so much to teach us! I have learned to tend them expectantly, to anticipate and savor, to know and accept the limits and gifts of others, to live fully in the moment and meet the other. Just being close to the fig trees fills me: I delight in searching for and then finding lustrous figs as they hang hidden under the leaves, along the trunk. They are bathed in sun, nourished by warm air.
Figs offer such sensuous pleasure. To find it, though, you must go out to meet it. May you journey well!