Wild, verdant, growing through sand and wind swept hills, perched on rugged cliff ledges and gathered in fields; all bearing bell shaped fruit, plump and ripening amidst a saturating sun. Mature trees, with caterpillar green leaves larger than a grown man’s hands, offering fruit to a cloudless azure sky.
These majestic and mature trees have been producing succulent fruit for more than a millennium. Seemingly random, the fig trees that dot the rugged and dusty landscape of the Algarve region of Portugal were introduced by the Moors to the “al-garb” region (meaning “to the west”) as early as the 8th century.
With each bite of this ancient fruit we savor a fragment of the past, reminding us of our ephemeral presence on this lovely earth. Oh what food can do to the psyche when we reflect upon its origins. Every taste of a sensational fresh fig, stirred with something sweet or stuffed with something salty, we pay homage to history and to those who lived before us.
I’m wondering how many souls noticed these magnificent trees over the centuries, taking just a moment to gaze at their beauty and ponder their significance. I envision Moorish soldiers clad in armor guarding their cliff-side fortresses; explorers such as Vasco de Gama or Prince Henry the Navigator tending their Western Algarvian gardens while between explorations of new worlds. And now in the 21st century, the modern Portuguese people living among these remnants of the past and effectively incorporating a multitude of rich flavors into their everyday life.
Most often, figs in Portugal are enjoyed as a doce, a dessert, molded into small cakes and used in pastries, often with almonds, another gem for which the Portuguese can thank the Moors. Adventurous modern chefs get creative and use them along with a sharp cheese for a starter or combined with port wine to accent a main dish. I’ve simply sliced the figs, served with a sharp cheese and drizzled them with honey, made crostini with toasted Portuguese rolls and some chopped almonds and combined port wine and figs to create a dessert topping for ice cream.
We may not have thousands of years of history with figs in the United States, but maybe it will be with figs that we will eventually be remembered by a future generation.
Serve these warm on vanilla ice cream with a spoonful of sugared almonds for a sophisticated and pleasing end to a summer dinner with friends.
Sweet Fig Sundaes
Figs Stewed with Port Wine
6 figs, washed, stems removed and roughly chopped
2-3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons sugar
3 to 4 tablespoons port wine
Juice from half of a lemon
1 piece lemon rind, yellow part only
In a small saucepan, melt butter with sugar, stirring frequently. Add the figs and port wine to the mixture and bring to a slow boil. Add the lemon juice and rind and reduce the heat and let cook for 15 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. Turn the heat off and let thicken. Serve warm over shortbread, pound cake or ice-cream. If you aren’t using it right away, you can store in the refrigerator up to three days and re-heat using the microwave.
Quick Sugared almonds
4 tablespoons chopped blanched almonds
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 1/2 pints good vanilla ice cream
In a small saucepan, heat the almonds with the sugar, stirring frequently. Allow the sugar to dissolve and caramelize with the almonds until they turn a golden color. Remove from the pan and let cool on a piece of parchment paper. Break apart and sprinkle on top of vanilla ice cream and warm figs.
And now for the Sundae!
1. Place two scoops of vanilla ice cream in a small bowl or sundae cup.
2. Spoon some warm fig sauce over the ice cream.
3. Top with crunchy almonds.