Top | First Person

The fig lover

(article, Meredith Escudier)

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It’s fig season again. Fig trees with their large, three-cornered leaves are bearing, even flaunting, their luscious fruit. Some are big and gushy, others firm and lean. Purple skins envelop pink flesh that peeks out at us through cracks. Lime-green skins sheathe a yellow sweetness, soft and cushiony to the touch. 

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What they have in common is abundance, most of which dangles over our heads, out of reach.

I live in the south of France with a fig lover. In fig season, he might head out the door for a trip to the hardware store, but come back with figs. Instead of a sturdy tin of turpentine, he’ll have a limp plastic bag heavy with ripe, warm fruit from a tree he just couldn't pass up. 

[%image figbranch float=left width=400 caption="A fig branch."]In his head, he's mapped out the geography of all the nearby fig trees, which turns any outing during the season into a possible fig detour. There’s that forgotten fig tree on the country lane and that almost-overlooked one adjacent to the vineyard. There’s the one whose branches reach up and out to him over the fence, plus that majestic one hiding in the secret courtyard — oops, clearly off-limits. 

But most of the fig trees in our environs seem to belong more to nature than to private owners. They are part of what the earth produces, offerings from ancient elders. 

My fig lover does not wait until fig season to seek out fig trees. Pre-season visits of encouragement are part of the deal. A good scout must always be on the lookout. Promising trees need to be spotted, immature seedlings nudged along. The stakes are simply too high to ignore spring training. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Not everyone can eat 10 figs in a row."]Living with a fig lover means that a wire contraption (a twisted coat hanger works well) for reaching hanging figs is an essential car accessory, as important as a jack, a spare tire, or emergency flares. You never know when a rogue fig tree might appear, after all, and so you should always have basic tools handy.

To date, I have observed two fig-catcher designs. One is nothing more than a simple branch clamp that, when properly placed, will lower an alluring branch and bring the figs within easy reach. The other one is more complicated, a loop surrounding a recalcitrant fig. An easy pull should coax the ripe fig downward. If this doesn’t work, you can resort to a sharp jerk; however, the relative brutality of this gesture, combined with the extreme ripeness of the fruit, can cause an unfortunate splat. 

So my fig lover, as a preventative tactic, likes to bring along supporting players — a wife, a sister — to act as fig goalies. Stationed at the foot of the tree, we stand in wait, putting ourselves in clear danger of being rained on by figs in the end zone. Reach, pull, jerk — and another fig hits the ground. 

Another issue, during fig season, is the probable stickiness of the car’s steering wheel and gear shift. This serves as a gauge of the day’s pickings: large, gooey, ripe. 

As with all fruit picking, much of the harvest is consumed on site; perhaps 30 percent of the figs picked on any given trip actually make it home. But that's good enough. Not everyone can eat 10 figs in a row.

Once midsummer fig satiation sets in, I have occasionally suggested using a ratings system. For example, does the danger involved in fig gathering — whether in the form of an irate farmer running trespassers off his property or the sheer physical difficulties of maneuvering down a steep, nettle-infested embankment – always add to the net worth of the figs? Do availability and reachability necessarily work in concert? 

[%image figbowl float=right width=400 caption="Sweetness, mushiness, color."] Is cookability a factor, or would that only apply when the harvest is so bountiful that even a voracious fig eater would blanch? What about peelability? Is messiness part of the integral fig experience or is Clean Fig Eating something to be wished for and preferred? 

It goes on and on: sweetness, mushiness, color, connection to childhood, our ancestors, the Roman Empire. Primeval-ness, the need to consume with eyes closed, transportability to the beyond . . . you get the idea.

I might be overanalyzing. Or I might be ruled by my emotions, turning in circles as I hash and rehash the same old story. But the fact is that when my fig lover, his eyes bright and emotions brimming, comes home toting a bag of half-smashed figs, we both benefit. 

He may tarry, he may lose track of time and keep me waiting at the window, but I know deep down that my fig lover will only wander as far as the next fig. 

p(bio). Meredith Escudier lives in the south of France, where she is a columnist for the magazine Blablablah.


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