Getting Figgy With It

Fig_fruitThe customer favorite Fig Balsamic Vinegar is back on the shelves this month, to everyone’s delight. It inspired us to look into the big history of this little fruit.

Once upon a time, a very long time ago… Historians think the edible fig is one of the very first plants that was cultivated by humans.

The fig tree is native to the Middle East and western Asia (think Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Syria, Lebanon), and it was in that area (the Jordan Valley) that people started growing fig trees, way back about 9400 BCE.

That archaeological evidence of fig cultivation predates (by over a thousand years!) the domestication of wheat, barley, and legumes — it may even be the first known instance of agriculture.

Friends, Romans, Countrymen: Lend me your figs. Figs were a common food source for the ancient Romans, but were also used to feed animals — including fattening up geese for the production of a delicacy that was a precursor to foie gras (liver pate). By about 500 BCE (golden age of the Roman Empire), the fig was grown over a broad area, from Afghanistan in the east all the way to Portugal in western Europe.


Sycophants and Yo’ Mama’s a Fig. Trying to persuade the Roman Republic to pursue a third Punic War (around 150 BCE), Cato the Elder brought the Senate fresh figs from nearby Carthage. This showed its proximity to Rome (which showed it was a nearby threat). The gesture also had the double meaning of accusing the Senate of weakness and (gasp) effeminacy: figs were associated with femininity.

Want to learn some more fig insults? The word sycophant comes from the Greek word sykophantes, literally “one who shows the fig.” In case you were wondering, “showing the fig” was a vulgar gesture made with the hand, having the thumb “peek” out between the index and middle fingers. (The more you know…)

Biblical figs and Bodhi trees.  In the Bible,  Adam and Eve cover their nakedness with fig leaves (Genesis 3:7) after eating the “forbidden fruit” in the Garden of Eden.

The biblical quote “each man under his own vine and fig tree” (1 Kings 4:25) has been used as a metaphor for peace and prosperity. That verse was commonly quoted in reference to the bountiful life that would be led by pioneers settling in the American West in the nineteenth century.

And, centuries before it was the nickname of a bank-robbing philosopher/surfer dude in awesome/awful movie “Point Break,” the Buddha achieved enlightenment under the bodhi tree, a large and old sacred fig tree.

Eat ’em up, YUM. Figs can be eaten fresh or dried, and used in jam-making. Here in Iowa, though, figs are found most often in dried or in some other kind of processed form, since they are not grown near here, ripe figs do not pack and travel well, and once picked, fresh figs do not keep well.

Using dried Smyrna figs, we highly recommend this recipe for White Pepper Creme Brulee With Prune and Fig Compote.

Dried figs pair with our Fig Balsamic Vinegar in this recipe for seared Pork Chops With Fig Balsamic Sauce.

If you can get your hands on a few fresh figs (and don’t want to use them to insult Roman Senators), you will love the contrasting flavors in the homemade Pizza with Figs, Gorgonzola, Prosciutto and Arugula.

Figs are the focal point of this Grilled Fig Salad with pecans and goat cheese.

Finally, here is a link to a full list of recipes using our Fig Balsamic Vinegar.

Photo credits: Kurt Stueber, and Eric Hunt