Figs may well be the first fruit man ever enjoyed. They’re native to Turkey, and digs in the Jordan Valley suggest that figs were domesticated nearly a thousand years before wheat or barley. Literary references abound: When Adam discovered his nakedness in the Garden of Eden, a handy fig leaf restored his dignity. Cleopatra hid the poisonous asp she used to end her life in a basket of figs—a notable departure from the fig’s more common use as a symbol for peace and prosperity.
The Spanish planted figs in Mexico in the mid-16th century, and when Franciscan monks established the missions of California, they had figs in tow. Hence, the dark-skinned Smyrna (originally from Turkey) became known in this country as the Mission Fig.
California continues to be the largest producer in the United States. When buying fresh figs (available from June through October), pick ones with a honey-sweet smell that yield softly to the touch. Because they’re fully ripe when shipped, they’re often a little sticky. To serve fresh figs, slash an X in the stem end, cutting about two-thirds of the way toward the base, then gently squeeze the base to create “petals” of flesh. It’s hard to imagine a nicer addition to a cheese tray.
—By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.