California figs in midst of fresh evolution

The availability of fresh figs, as opposed to dried ones, has increased lately. From left are a sliced Brown Turkey fig, Brown Turkey fig, Sierra fig, Tiger fig and Black Mission fig.
The availability of fresh figs, as opposed to dried ones, has increased lately. From left are a sliced Brown Turkey fig, Brown Turkey fig, Sierra fig, Tiger fig and Black Mission fig. Fresno Bee file

Fresh figs – an ancient delicacy and the original California fruit – are finding new fans. That’s because there are more fresh figs to love.

Innovations in the fig business – both in the field and in shipping – mean greater availability and variety in supermarkets.

“Five years ago, 90 percent of our figs went to the dryer and only 10 percent were sold fresh,” said Kevin Herman, a longtime fig farmer in Madera. “Now, it’s 80-20. We’re selling a lot more fresh.”

With about 4,000 acres of figs in cultivation, Herman’s Specialty Crop Co. ranks as the world’s biggest fig grower.

“Our main competition is in Turkey and Greece,” Herman explained. “They produce more volume, but it’s from many small farms. At Specialty Crop, we take our name to heart.”

Now is the peak of California fresh fig season, and it’s a little later than usual.

“Everything else is early but the figs are late,” Herman said. “Our main production will be the last two weeks of August and early September, then it starts to taper off. We’ll be picking through October. It’s not like almonds, that come all at once.”

Clamshell plastic packaging has helped preserve fragile figs going to market.

“We used to use those little green strawberry baskets, but those could really cut into the fruit and that could lead to mold and decay,” Herman said. “The clamshells protect the figs and they also let consumers see them better.”

Some of the figs they may see now are particularly eye-catching, such as the relatively new Tiger fig with bright yellow and dark green stripes.

Herman first tasted the Tiger figs, also known as Panachee, at UC Davis during a fig trial.

“It’s relatively new but also old,” he said of the rediscovered variety. “It’s having a renaissance. Those yellow-green stripes are so pretty, then inside it has this sweet, bright red raspberry flesh. It’s a really good fig.”

Starting with 15 cuttings 12 years ago, Herman now has 160 acres of Tiger figs.

“We’re finally getting the volume up,” he said. “We were having a hard time keeping up with demand. People really like them.”

In addition to nuts, pomegranates, citrus, kiwi and persimmons, Herman grows six varieties of figs, each with its own special flavor and attributes. He compares them to wine grapes.

“I’m a wine geek and I love comparing flavors,” he explained. “A Sierra or Tiger fig is way different tasting than a Black Mission or Brown Turkey. It’s like comparing chardonnay to cabernet sauvignon. We do fig feasts with local restaurants, using different figs for each course and pairing those dishes with wine. What you discover is fig varieties really are different – and they all pair very well with wine.”

In most orchards, the bright green Sierra fig – another UC Davis breakthrough – is replacing the beloved Calimyrna. Sierra figs are also marketed as California or golden figs.

“Calimyrna was always the Cadillac of figs,” Herman said. “It has really big seeds and wonderful nutty crunchy flavor. But the Calimyrna has fallen out of favor because it needs a special pollination process. The Sierra has made the Calimyrna almost a thing of the past.”

Unlike common figs, Calimyrna is not self-fertile. It needs male fig flowers, called caprifigs, and a specific tiny wasp for pollination. During spring, paper bags filled with wasp-carrying caprifigs are placed in Calimyrna fig orchards to assure pollination.

However, during the pollination process, mold spores, as well as pollen, may be introduced into the fruit. That can ruin the figs.

“You don’t know until you pick it (if it’s infected with mold),” Herman said. “With Sierra figs, there isn’t that problem.”

With its Mediterranean climate, California has perfect growing conditions for figs. Drought-tolerant, figs need just half the water of almond or stone fruit trees. But the delicate nature of the fruit can make it very expensive to grow commercially. Figs must be hand picked.

“People ask me why figs are $3 a pound in stores, but $1 of that is just picking – not including farming, shipping or cold storage,” Herman said. “We’re concerned in California over labor costs and it’s really expensive to pick figs. We pick every third day, but the harvest (for each variety) is spread over six weeks.”

California, which produces virtually all of the nation’s fig crop, has been fig country since the missionary days. Native to the Arabian peninsula and cultivated for centuries in Europe and Asia, figs were introduced to our state by Franciscan priests. The first California fig tree was planted at their San Diego mission in 1769.

“We’ve all heard the story,” Herman said. “The priests brought black figs to California and planted them at every mission. That gave us the Black Mission fig, our oldest variety.”

Figs became a mainstay of California meals and a favorite among American settlers. By 1867, more than 1,000 acres of figs grew in the Sacramento Valley, according to

Eventually, Fresno became fig central and home to thousands of acres of White Adriatic figs, an Italian favorite for drying, cookies and fig bars. By 1931, California fig acreage swelled to more than 57,000, mostly in the central San Joaquin Valley. Almost all of the crop was dried.

As consumer tastes changed and labor costs rose, figs declined in popularity. California’s fig acreage is now fewer than 9,000 acres.

Still, fresh figs are drawing new fans nationwide, Herman noted. He credits that to creative chefs, both in restaurants and on TV.

“Figs are new to a lot of folks,” he said. “They watch the Food Network and think, wow, figs look pretty cool. Then, they taste one and they know. It’s a great piece of fruit.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Know your figs

More than 150 varieties of figs are in cultivation. Here are the most popular California-grown varieties:

Black Mission: These nearly black-skinned figs have sweet pink flesh with an intense earthy flavor.

Brown Turkey: A popular backyard tree in California, this fig is no turkey – and not brown. It’s actually purple with robust red flesh.

Calimyrna: Known as the “Cadillac of figs,” this fruit turns greenish-yellow with sweet amber flesh when ripe.

Kadota: These figs go from green to creamy amber when ripe, but the delicately flavored flesh turns purple.

Sierra: This self-fertile, all-purpose fig is replacing finicky Calimyrna. Similar in flavor and appearance, it’s also green on the outside with sweet raspberry red flesh.

Tiger: Also known as Panachee, this distinctive variety has yellow skin with dark green stripes and sweet strawberry flesh; flavor is outstanding.

White Adriatic: Most often used to make fig bars, this Italian variety has a light green skin and pink flesh. Phased out of commercial production, it’s still popular as a backyard tree.

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Debbie Arrington

Grilled fresh figs with prosciutto and blue cheese mousse

Serves 6 to 8

This is the home cook’s version of a recipe in “Not Afraid of Flavor,” by Ben and Karen Barker (UNC Press). The James Beard award-winning couple used to own Magnolia Grill in Durham, N.C. The original recipe served these figs on a green salad.

4 ounces good blue cheese, at room temperature

4 ounces mascarpone, at room temperature

Ground black pepper

16 to 18 fresh figs

6 ounces prosciutto, sliced paper-thin

Balsamic glaze

Combine blue cheese, mascarpone and black pepper together in a medium bowl. Set aside.

Starting at the stem end, cut the the fig almost in half, leaving bottom intact. Stuff each fig with about 1 teaspoon cheese mixture. Cut prosciutto slices lengthwise. Wrap a strip of prosciutto around each fig.

Prepare charcoal or gas grill for grilling. Grill figs bottom-side down over medium heat until prosciutto is crisp and figs are warm. Remove to a platter. Drizzle with balsamic glaze.

Figgy Demerara snacking cake

Serves 12-14

You can substitute 2 pounds sour cherries or plums (quartered or thickly sliced) for the figs. Recipe tester’s note: This batter was a bear to spread out in the pan. Be patient and use water-dipped fingers instead. From “Cook This Now, “ by Melissa Clark (Hyperion).

2 dozen fresh figs, halved lengthwise through stem

2 1/4 cups whole wheat flour, divided, plus more for the pan

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened, plus more for the pan

1 1/4 cups granulated sugar

3 tablespoons brandy

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 large egg

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup milk

2 tablespoons Demerara or raw sugar

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Toss figs with 1/4 cup flour in a bowl and set aside.

Grease an 18-inch-by-13-inch-by-1-inch baking sheet with butter and dust with flour; set aside.

Beat together butter, sugar, brandy and vanilla with hand mixer or standing mixer on medium speed until pale and fluffy. Add egg and beat until incorporated.

In medium bowl, whisk together remaining 2 cups flour, baking powder and salt. With mixer running on low speed, alternately add flour mixture and milk in 3 batches to make a batter. Spoon batter onto the baking sheet and smooth evenly; try water-dipped fingers if it is a struggle. Nestle the figs into the batter evenly all over the top. Sprinkle with the Demerara sugar. Bake until the cake is golden brown, 45 to 50 minutes. Let cake cool for 30 minutes before serving.

Fig salad with sticky date dressing

Serves 4

You can find date syrup at most Middle Eastern grocery stores or whole dates in the produce section of most grocery stores. From “A Modern Way to Eat: 200+ Satisfying Vegetarian Recipes (that will make you feel amazing)” by Anna Jones (Ten Speed Press).

1 shallot, peeled and very finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons date syrup or 2 dates, seeds removed, chopped and blended with a little oil

Juice of 1 lemon

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

A small bunch of fresh mint

8 big handfuls of mixed salad leaves

6 fresh figs, quartered

A small bunch of fresh basil

3 1/2 ounces fresh goat cheese

Put chopped shallot, mustard, date syrup or chopped dates blended with oil and lemon juice into a bowl. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle in the oil, whisking as you go. Chop the mint, add to the bowl, and set aside.

Put the salad leaves into a bowl and scatter with figs. Stir dressing and drizzle over the salad. Pick the basil leaves off the stems and scatter over the salad; then toss everything together. Dot with goat cheese and serve.

Fig and blue cheese appetizer tarts

Makes 16 mini tarts

This crowd-pleasing recipe uses packaged crescent dinner roll dough as a shortcut, but your guests will never guess. Recipe adapted from Betty

3 ounces low-fat cream cheese or Neufchâtel cheese, softened

2/3 cup (3 ounces) crumbled blue cheese

1/4 cup orange marmalade

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

16 dried Mission figs, coarsely chopped (about 1 cup)

1 can (12 ounces) Pillsbury Grands! Big & Flaky crescent dinner rolls

1/2 cup chopped pecans

Heat oven to 350 degrees. In small bowl, mix cream cheese and blue cheese with fork until well blended; set aside.

In 1-quart saucepan, stir marmalade and vinegar over low heat until mixed; stir in figs. Cook over low heat 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally, until figs are softened. Remove from heat.

Remove crescent dough from package, but do not unroll. Cut roll of dough into 16 slices (they’ll look like spirals). On two ungreased cookie sheets, place slices 2 inches apart. Press center of each slice gently to make indentation, 1 1/2 inches in diameter.

Place 1 heaping teaspoon cheese mixture into each well. Top cheese with about 1 tablespoon fig mixture and 1 1/2 teaspoon pecans.

Bake 15 to 19 minutes or golden brown. Remove from cookie sheets to cooling rack; cool 10 minutes. Serve warm.

Ocracoke fig cake

Serves 10 to 12

From Ruth Toth, former owner of Cafe Atlantic restaurant on Ocracoke, N.C. Her cake won first place at the 2015 Ocracoke Fig Festival. Her recipe differs from the classic by increasing the amount of figs. At the restaurant, Toth served this cake with coffee ice cream. Toth published a cookbook, “Cafe Atlantic Cookbook,” which is sold at Books to be Red, Ocracoke Preservation Museum and The Village Craftsman, all in Ocracoke.

3 eggs

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 cup oil

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon allspice

1/2 cup buttermilk

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 1/2 cup preserved figs, drained and chopped coarsely, or fig preserves

1 cup walnuts or pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a tube, Bundt or 9-by-13-inch baking pan; set aside.

Whisk eggs in a medium bowl. Stir in sugar and oil until fully combined. Set aside.

Sift dry ingredients together in a large bowl bowl. Stir egg mixture into flour mixture, alternating with buttermilk and vanilla. Fold in figs and nuts. Bake for about 1 hour in a tube or Bundt pan but check at 40 minutes; the cake is done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. (The cake will likely take less time in 9-by-13-inch baking pan.)

Let cool. If using a tube or Bundt pan, remove cake from pan, slice and serve.

Chicken breasts with feta and figs

Serves 4

Recipe from The New York Times.

Four 5- to 6-ounce boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Salt and pepper

2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

2 ounces feta, crumbled (about 1/2 cup)

1 1/4 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves

1/2 cup red wine

8 fresh figs, cut in small dice

1 tablespoon honey

Rosemary sprigs for garnish (optional)

One at a time, place each chicken breast between pieces of plastic wrap or parchment and lightly pound with a mallet until it is 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick. Chicken breasts should be of uniform thickness.

Place chicken breasts in a bowl, season with salt and pepper and toss with rosemary, garlic and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Cover bowl and refrigerate for 30 minutes to an hour.

Place oven on lowest setting, around 200 degrees. Cook the chicken: Heat a large cast-iron skillet or grill pan over high heat for 5 minutes. Add remaining olive oil to pan and reduce heat to medium-high. Turn over chicken breasts in marinade to coat them, then add them to the pan, rounded side down. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes on one side, until cooked halfway through.

Turn chicken breasts over and carefully arrange feta on top, dividing it equally among the 4 breasts. Sprinkle about 1/4 teaspoon thyme leaves over feta on each breast. Cook 4 to 5 minutes, until breasts are cooked through. Feta will warm but will not melt. Transfer to a baking sheet and keep in warm oven while you cook the figs.

Add wine to pan and scrape with a wooden spoon to de-glaze the bottom. Boil wine until it has reduced by half, then add figs, honey and remaining thyme. Cook, stirring, until figs break down and begin to look jammy, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat.

Serve chicken breasts with fig compote on side and garnish with rosemary sprigs.