Figs reach their peak in summertime, growing fat enough to split their skins under the hot sun. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with a bountiful tree, and many a neglected fig is extravagantly abandoned to the beetles.
But here we are, halfway around the calendar in dark and cold December, and we feel grateful for the figs we managed to set aside to dry. Their concentrated sweetness is balanced by a complex spicy flavor that makes dried figs exactly the right ingredient for dark and dense holiday desserts. As we mark another turn of the annual cycle from profligate to provident, what better way to celebrate than with a flaming mound of figgy pudding?
Well, except that the traditional holiday pudding contains no figs. More on that later, along with some old recipes. First, we’ll unwrap the fig itself to find out what’s inside.
Anatomy of the fig
To understand a fig, you have to recall the basic structure of a flower and imagine the various ways flowers can be grouped on a plant. Figs (and related mulberries) cluster their tiny flowers together into dense and well-defined inflorescences. And, in both, all the flowers on an inflorescence develop into a single fused unit, which we casually call a fruit. Before offering the details of what we eat, we’ll need to look at the individual flowers and fruit.
An idealized flower has four concentric rings of parts, or whorls. From the outside in, they are:
2) petals, which are often colored or otherwise showy (together called the corolla);
3) the “male” stamens, consisting of a filament holding aloft a pollen-filled anther; and
4) one or more “female” pistils, anchored by an ovary. The pistil catches pollen grains, which then grow down through a style to the ovary and the seeds within. The ovary matures into a fruit.
Not all flowers have all of these parts. Figs make separate flowers with only one or the other sex: “female” flowers lack stamens and cannot make pollen, and “male” flowers lack pistils and cannot make fruit. Both female and male flowers also lack petals.
Fig flowers are a bit like Christmas presents: you can’t see them without opening up the structure that encloses them, and sometimes the wrapping is more exciting than what’s inside. As it turns out, being hidden from view also means being hidden from all but the most specialized pollinators, which is a big part of the fig story (see below).
Get the full story of the fig at the Botanist in the Kitchen blog.