Saturday, August 28, 2010

Edible Plants of California's Edgelands: A giant ficus on the Margin

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Summer in Central California brings some amazing things.  Of course, we get the heat - a typical Summer here gives us 22 days over 100 degrees, which means that half of our years have more than 22 days over 100.  But, we also get fruit, vegetables, berries, and flowers.  For foraging the wild marginal lands, Summer offers up serious bounties of very valuable products - fennel seeds and pollen, and various berries ripened by the heat and fed by generous river systems.  This weather also makes for a great place for common figs to grow.

That brighter green thicket holds an overflowing bounty

The common fig (Ficus caricar) has a long and distinguished past with people.  Among the first plants cultivated by humans, figs have been found in neolithic sites dating back to 9,000 BC, even before evidence of wheat cultivation.  Today, hundreds of varieties are grown throughout the warmer parts of the world.

In California, the most commonly met wild fig is a variety called 'mission' or 'black mission'.  It is medium-sized, as figs go, and when ripe (Summertime!), turns a beautiful, dark purple and droops down.  It's name comes from its origin to the state, as Spanish missions brought the fruit as early as the late 1700's.

 The black mission fig in all its glory

Figs are that type of food everything gorges on while it's ripe.  Birds, woodland critters, and people all take part in great fig feasts, because very soon, we know they will be withered and gone for a whole year.

Figs are also the type of food that really changes dramatically with preparation.  When eaten raw, they are sweet, but not overpoweringly so.  When preserved, their sweetness is still there, but there is a stronger presence of other flavors, and an almost smoky quality.

Because they are so loved by creatures great and small, and because they've been cultivated for thousands of years, figs are prolific, and picking can be easy.  However, this means that the tree you are eyeballing along the trail has been eyeballed by more than a couple of people, and other species, to boot.  And the tree has one problem associated with picking:  It's sap can be a terrible irritant, causing sticking, itching, and burning, and on some people, it can even scar.  If you are heading out to pick, please wear long-sleeved shirts, pants, and if you are particularly sensitive, even gloves. 

If you can just reach a little further...
Technical-ish description:

Common fig, Ficus caricar
Large, deciduous shrub or small tree of riparian habitats, growing to 30 feet high, almost always in thickets of multiple plants.
Leaves are large, palmate, and deeply lobed with 3-7 lobes.  Fruit is a synconium.

Preserved figs
Half as much sugar as figs
One lemon per 60 figs or so, sliced thin
60 figs will make about four pint jars

Pour just enough water to cover the bottom of your pan (really, just a little water), and dump in figs, whole.  Cover with sugar.
Set fire on med-med. high, stirring frequently, until it starts to boil.  Lower heat some, and simmer, uncovered, 1.5-2 hours, until liquid starts to thicken, stirring occasionally to keep the foam down (it's harder to skim the foam with whole figs in the pot).  If the pot is seriously foaming, turn down the heat a bit. 

Pour into prepared jars, making sure to get a couple of lemon slices in each jar, and process in boiling water bath (I believe the standard is fifteen minutes, but you'll need to double-check that with a canning expert).

If you can the figs while the liquid is still pretty thin, pour the liquid over the figs, and strain the remaining liquid through a sieve to get rid of the seeds.  You now have a small amount of fig syrup, with which you can make this:

Ginger, candied in fig & port wine

One finger of ginger, about one/1.5 in. long
3/4 to 1 Cup each of fig syrup and port wine

Simmer fig syrup on medium heat until it just starts to bubble around the edges, then quickly pour in the port wine.  Simmer down a bit, then toss in ginger, sliced wide and thin.  Simmer down by at least half.  Serve sauce over meats (it goes perfectly with salmon), topped with the ginger.  


The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Last summers Figs, pickled and served with translucent slices of Copa di Parma.

Salt, sweet, sour, and Umami. Mmmmm

A coarse bread, a pulpy olive oil and then Figs caught and eaten as they drop from the tree into your hand, a robusto sized cigar and an XO from just one estate in cognac.



Josh said...

SBW, you sure know how to enjoy a fig! I want to know your fig-picklin' recipe.

Bpaul said...

Great post Josh. You're making me want to write again -- you know, with all that time I have. *cough*

Josh said...

Bpaul, I couldn't get a better compliment. Also, I was really impressed with your blog, and would welcome the chance to read your stuff again.

Bpaul said...

Well, the archives are deep at that blog, I suspect there is months of reading to be had. I still get a small but steady stream of hits, which is why I left it up.

Hippo said...

I am going to have to try these recipes.

The figs we have here can take the skin off your teeth with their acidity but you have given me some ideas I will try out.

We don't have Salmon here but we have the beautiful pink fleshed Kingfish, so I will give it a whirl.

Josh said...

Hippo, I don't think I've ever been a culinary inspiration before. Let me know how it works out, and remember that I'm no chef.