California’s fall fig season is upon us, and like the peach and apricot season of early summer, it is deliciously short and sweet.
Believed to have originated in the alluvial soils of Mesopotamia, fig trees are well adapted to the Mediterranean climate of California and can claim the honor of being the only fruits to fully ripen on the tree. Once the harvest kicks into gear, you need to act fast, because this tender, luscious and most seductive of fruits will only last a few, fleeting days before going from perfect ripeness to utter devastation.
“Once they come in, people are inundated with them,” said Sondra Bernstein, owner of The Girl & the Fig restaurant in Sonoma and The Fig Cafe in Glen Ellen. “And once they are picked, they don’t continue to ripen, but they continue the process of breaking down.”
If you’ve got your own tree — which is probably the best and cheapest way to get your hands on fresh figs — that means exercising extreme patience until each fig has turned color, is soft to the touch and easily plucked. Perhaps that extra waiting makes the fruit taste even sweeter.
A fig is actually a flower that has inverted into itself, with soft skin, velvety flesh and crunchy seeds that are the real fruit. Once you bite into your first, there is no going back. Many believe the ancient fig was actually the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden, for good reason.
Bernstein, whose Girl & the Fig restaurant recently celebrated its 19th anniversary, is offering a world of figgy pleasures to diners this month, with the help of Executive Chef John Toulze and his new Chef de Cuisine, Matt Spector, formerly of JoLe in Calistoga.
How many ways do these Sonoma Valley chefs love to serve figs? Start with their signature Grilled Fig & Arugula Salad, studded with pancetta and pecans. Then move to the Fig & Thyme Crisp topped with ice cream, a warm and comforting fig bar reminiscent of Grandma’s treats, only better.
Then move on to the fig cocktails and after-dinner quaffs made with local products, such as the Figcello di Sonoma and the Fig’n’Awesome Grappa from Sonoma Portworks.
Let’s just say that between the savory and sweet dishes, in-house jams and the cocktails, there are never enough figs to fulfill their needs. And once they lay their hands on them, they treat the precious fruits like royalty.
“What I like about them is that they go with anything, savory or sweet,” Spector said. “We separate them and lay them out on a linen napkin.”
When figs are in season, Bernstein puts out an e-mail blast to friends and neighbors in the Sonoma Valley, asking them to bring their fresh figs to the kitchen door in exchange for gift certificates.
“Sondra puts out the APB (all points bulletin), and our neighbors show up with figs,” said Spector, who recently served a “trio” of three different grilled figs — Black Mission, Kadota and Brown Turkey — in three savory preparations. The “secret” appetizer is not on the menu, but when figs are in season, it’s always offered as a special.
“We didn’t want to be like Alice Waters and just serve a fig on the plate,” Bernstein said. “It’s fun to let the chef do a fig plate like our wine flight.”
For the home cook, grilled figs can make for amazingly easy and delicious appetizers when paired simply with a few of their favorite companions: blue cheese and nuts, salty meats like bacon or prosciutto, or fresh cheeses like fromage blanc or ricotta.
If, for some reason, your figs grow too soft in their quick march toward decay, Spector suggests turning them into a simple fig jam, which he makes as the filling for the restaurant’s Warm Fig & Thyme Crisp.
Bernstein and her crew have been ahead of the curve — at least in America — in appreciating the fruit’s many charms for the past two decades, elevating the lowly fig to its rightful place in the sun.
According to longtime fig farmer Kevin Herman of Madera, the demand for fresh figs has risen sharply in the past five years as consumers trade in the dried variety for the more alluring fresh kind.
“Five years ago, 90 percent of our figs went to the dryer and only 10 percent were sold fresh,” Herman told the Sacramento Bee earlier this summer. “Now it’s 80-20. We’re selling a lot more fresh.”
In other words, Americans are catching on that there is more to figs than that childhood classic, the Fig Newton.
“People are surprised that they are a ripe fruit, not dried in a bag,” Spector said. “And there is more than the Black Mission Fig. They are all different.”
The following recipes are from The Girl & the Fig. For more recipes, stop by the restaurant in Sonoma and pick up the first edition of #figchronicles, a newsprint newsletter that Bernstein publishes on an occasional basis.
Grilled Fig & Arugula Salad
Makes 6 servings
For the vinaigrette:
1 cup ruby port
3 dried Black Mission figs
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 tablespoon minced shallots
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons canola oil
— Salt and pepper to taste
For the salad:
1/2 cup pancetta, diced
12 fresh figs, halved
6 bunches baby arugula
1 cup pecans, toasted
1 cup goat cheese, crumbled (preferably Laura Chenel Chevre)
— Freshly ground black pepper to taste
To prepare the vinaigrette: Pour the port in a bowl, add the figs and re-hydrate until soft. Transfer the port and figs to a saucepan. Reduce the port over medium heat to 1/2 cup, about 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer the port mixture to a food processor and add the vinegar. Purée until smooth. Add the shallots and slowly whisk in the oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
To prepare the salad: Sauté the pancetta in a small sauté pan over medium heat until it is crisp. Set the pancetta aside, reserving the “oil.” Brush the figs with the pancetta “oil.” Grill the figs for 45 seconds on each side. In a stainless-steel bowl, toss the arugula, pecans, pancetta and goat cheese with the vinaigrette.
To serve: Divide the salad among 6 chilled plates and surround it with the grilled figs. Grind the pepper over each salad.
Warm Fig & Thyme Crisp
Makes a 9- by 12-inch crisp
2 cups walnut halves
6 tablespoons + 3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
4 1/2 cups flour
3/4 pound (3 sticks) butter, thinly sliced
3 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 egg yolks
2 1/2 pounds dried figs
3/4 cup granulated sugar
— Zest of 3 lemons, grated
1 bunch thyme, tied with twine
3 tablespoons lemon juice
For pastry: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a food processor, grind the walnuts (until medium fine) with 6 tablespoons of sugar and set aside. In an electric mixer, mix 3/4 cup sugar, brown sugar, salt, baking powder and flour until well combined.
Add the butter and mix until the mixture clumps. Add the vanilla and egg yolks to the mixture and mix for 40 seconds.
Pack two-thirds of the dough into the bottom of an ungreased pan and bake until dough is light brown, about 25 to 30 minutes.
For jam: In a heavy bottom pot, combine the figs, sugar, lemon zest, thyme and lemon juice and pour in enough water to cover. Bring to a boil and boil for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat and simmer until the figs are tender, about 30 minutes. Remove the thyme. Purée the mixture in a food processor until smooth.
To assemble the crisp, spread the jam evenly over the baked dough. In a bowl, crumble together the remaining third of dough and the walnut and sugar mixture. Sprinkle the mixture over the fig jam and bake for 50 minutes.
The Fig Kiss
Makes 2 cocktails
3 ounces St.-Germaine Elderflower Liqueur
1 ounce Figcello di Sonoma
2 ounces cranberry juice
1 fig, cut in half, for garnish
Combine the St.-Germaine, Figcello and cranberry juice in a cocktail shaker. Top with ice. Shake vigorously to incorporate and strain into chilled martini glasses. Garnish with a half fig on side of the rim.
Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or email@example.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.