Figs. Does a more sultry fruit exist? When picked straight from the tree at their ripest, they are everything and anything one might require. And, it was not until our pilgrimage to France that I discovered the true magic of a ripe fig. In the South East, where I grew up with my family for several years, it was as if there was a tree growing on each and every corner; their sprawling roots finding a foothold through any weak point of pavement or crumbling village wall. The trees dotted throughout the towns would provide a canopy of shade for any passerby, stray cat or hound, in search of shelter from the scalding sun. As summer progressed, so too would the trees’ fruit, growing larger, darker and evermore fragile, spewing nectar and clear sap from their stamen. The Celestial fig, with deep purple skin and effervescent red flesh, was undoubtedly our preferred variety, and the ants too it seemed, who would navigate their way up and down the tree in search of the abundant crimson jewels. Sweet and treacle-like in flavour and texture, they were the perfect August afternoon snack for the famished (the figs, not the ants). As we would run out the door with our friends to lose ourselves in the French countryside until the sun came down, I recall my mother adding, “don’t eat too many figs”, knowing too well we had every intention of stuffing our mouths with handfuls of sun-ripened, sweet, jammy delights, and spoiling our dinner as a result.
Before I was introduced to the fresh kind, back in Ireland, the dried preparation was a pantry staple: a perfect suppression of hunger between meal times for the unforgivingly ‘starving’… But, like most Irish I imagine, (who have an acute liking for tea breaks) our introduction to the humble fig was in the form of a biscuit. Jacob’s has been providing these in significant quantities to our household since ‘92, with the Fig Roll adorning many a lunch box up and down the country. On more frugal days, when biscuits were in lesser availability (from our ravaging of the pantry), I recall dipping my hand into the bags of dried fig and rolling a couple between a slice of bread, making my own fig roll, which although paled in comparison to its industrially produced counterpart, filled a void nonetheless. Despite my whole life seemingly featuring figs in one form or another, it was not until much later that I discovered that the leaves could be eaten. Almost certainly the reason to which I was so partial to the fig was down to its immeasurable sweetness. However, the unique flavour found in the fruit is also available in spades within the leaf – an ingredient all on its own, it has the potential of imparting a wonderful flavour reminiscent of vanilla or coconut to a plethora of preparations. Since this discovery, I have experimented with a whole number of uses for the leaf, diving into historical references to discover that the fig is not only a personal obsession, but a tree with its own gastronomical history as well as paving its way into the future.
The fig tree, originally native to the Mediterranean and Middle East, was brought to London in the 16th century by Cardinal Reginald Pole in Lambeth Palace. It’s a tree that rather spectacularly still grows today. Fig trees are now also found in Ireland, ornamentally grown in gardens. Although fruiting annually, and for the most part struggling to come to full ripeness in northern climates, I have had the good fortune of sampling wonderfully sweet figs, appropriately positioned by South facing walls in rare microclimates in Ireland. Similarly, a tree located in a greenhouse will almost certainly produce fruit capable of ripening to ample satisfaction. Should you not possess a south facing wall that reaps the benefits of long summer sunshine, nor a greenhouse for that matter, fear not, your fig tree still has culinary purpose in this lesser expected environment. The leaves, unripe fruit, wood and sap can all be used in the kitchen. Let’s dive right in!
Dried Fig and Goat’s Milk Teleme
In Turkey, I found it fascinating to find ficin used in a sweet preparation known as Teleme, which also uses goat’s milk. Similarly, this recipe is thought to derive from a method of preserving milk, when shepherds would tend their herd high up in the mountains for weeks on end (like booleying practised in Ireland). The recipe comes from Restaurant Ciya Sofrasi in Istanbul, run by chef Musa Dağdeviren. His focus is to resurrect dying food traditions (much like the inspiring Max Jones here in Ireland). For the recipe, hulled, dried or fresh figs are blended with the milk and allowed to sit refrigerated overnight. Fig leaves can also be used. The milk sets and is finished with roasted walnuts, seasoned with salt, sugar and rosemary, then drizzled with honey.
1 L goat’s milk
250 g dried figs (soaked in hot water, stalks removed and finely chopped)
30 g honey (optional)
100 g walnuts, toasted and crushed*
- Bring the milk to a boil in a small saucepan then let it cool to 50°C.
- In a large bowl, combine the dried figs with 500ml of the boiled and cooled milk. Blend with a stick blender.
- Add the remaining milk and blend once more. Taste and add a little honey if required.
- At this point, you have the option to fold the roasted walnuts into the mixture before chilling (or omit them until serving).
- Cover and rest at room temperature for 1 hour, then chill in the fridge for 24 hours before serving.
- Top with roasted walnuts (if not already used) before serving.
*The walnuts may be caramelised with salt, sugar and freshly chopped rosemary if preferred.
Fig Leaf Ice Cream
This is a recipe from Anna Higham. She’s the former pastry chef at Lyle’s in London. I’ve both eaten this ice cream in Lyle’s and made the recipe, and I can affirm both are excellent! As mentioned before, fig leaves impart a coconut/ vanilla like flavour, but to be honest with you, I feel this recipe is entirely its own and absolutely worth making. If the milk splits a little while infusing, give it a blend with a hand blender.
60 g fig leaves
1 L whole milk
360 ml double cream
240 g egg yolk (from 13-14 eggs)
150 g caster sugar (superfine)
Pinch of salt
- Remove the large stalks from the fig leaves then slice into thin ribbons.
- Combine the milk and cream in a heavy based saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer over a medium-high heat.
- Once the milk and cream start to steam but not boil, remove the pan from the heat and add the sliced fig leaves. Leave the mixture to infuse in the fridge for at least 3 hours or overnight.
- Pour into a high speed blender and blend until vivid green. Pass through a fine sieve.
- Whisk together the egg and caster sugar. Pour over the hot milk a little at the time, whisking continuously.
- Transfer this mixture to a clean pot and place on the heat.
- Gently heat while continuously stirring to 83°C. When the custard reaches temperature, pour directly into a bowl over ice.
- Allow to chill in the fridge overnight.
- Place the mixture into an ice cream machine and churn until thick. Store in the freezer until required.
Fish Grilled in Fig Leaves
- Wrap whole fish of your choice in fig leaves and tie them up using soaked butchers string.
- Wrap the fish in foil and barbecue over charcoal. The aromatic flavour of the leaves will permeate through to the fish flesh.
Fig Leaf Oil
I love fig leaf oil. By blending oil and leaves, the vivid green colour is encapsulated within the oil. It’s amazing over ice cream or most differently, with cured fish.
500 g fig leaves* 750 ml grapeseed oil (or another neutral oil)
- De-stem the fig leaves and slice into strips.
- Blanch in boiling water for 30 seconds and refresh in ice water to stop the cooking process.
- Pat the leaves dry and place in a high speed blender.
- Add the oil and blend for 8 minutes.
- Place over a muslin-lined strainer to drain.
- Freeze the oil in a container, removing the block of ice the next day to clarify.
- You are left with an intense fig leaf oil.
- Store the oil in the fridge for up to 1 week or in the freezer until required.
*You can use less or more leaves based on what you have collected, but keep to a 2:3 ratio of leaves to oil.
Words: Cúán Greene
Image Credits: Klara Kulikova, Michal Hlaváč
Cúán Greene is a chef and author of the Ómós Digest Newsletter. You can subscribe for weekly posts at omos.substack.com