This week Astrid from Paulchen's Foodblog is hosting Weekend Herb Blogging, and my offering is all about figs.
Shakespeare's Cleopatra, in Act 1 Scene 2 of her eponymous play, casually remarks "I love a long life better than figs". If Shakespeare had been attempting to signal to the audience the inherent precarious irrationality of women, and the dangers of letting such unhinged and volatile creatures wield any power of their own, he could have picked no better phrase with which to do so. Is she absolutely mad? No one in their right mind, surely, would choose a long life over the prospect of figs. I'm pretty sure I could happily accept the possibility of dropping down dead in five years' time if I could guarantee that those five years would be spent, chiefly, in the act of consuming limitless basketfuls of plump, ripe, oozingly succulent figs. Clearly Shakespeare agreed: four acts later, Cleopatra is dead. No long life for the woman crazy enough to blaspheme the joys of this unparalleled fruit. Surely we can see this as a message. Shakespeare says: figs > long life.
Along with apricots, figs are my favourite fruit, largely because they are so elusive (like most girls, I want most what I can't have). I kind of hope I do have a long life, because a long life is what is needed to capture this fruit at the peak of perfection. I have been disappointed with countless woolly, fuzzy, tasteless specimens. The problem with figs is that they are nearly impossible to transport when perfect for eating, as they'll just collapse into mush as soon as anything touches them. For this reason they are shipped or flown underripe, and unlike fruits like mangoes or bananas, they don't ripen once picked. Alas.
The best way to enjoy figs, then, is fresh from the tree, preferably after they have been warmed by the Mediterranean sun. I remember going for a stroll around the slopes of Lake Garda in north Italy a few summers ago, and to my absolute delight finding the hills littered with fig trees. You can see my delight in the photo above. Small but perfectly ripe green figs were dangling from the branches. I had to fight the very real urge to tear off my clothes, adorn myself with fig leaves, and smear myself in fruit. It was the first - and last - time I've ever seen figs in their natural habitat (and what a beautiful habitat, as you can see above).
I found a few in Morocco, but they were nowhere near ripe, and tantalised me with their potential. If you're not lucky enough to stumble across a tree of figs, your best bet is to buy some at a market in a country that grows them. Turkey is your best best, but I've had some lovely specimens in the south of France. I bought them from the market, took them down to the sea and placed them on the pebbly beach. The warmth from both the sun and the heat-absorbing pebbles permeated the figs, meaning they were oozing sticky syrup when I finally succumbed to eating them. After a dip in the chilly sea, your skin prickling with goosebumps in the slight breeze, the feeling of a warm fig in the hand and the promise of its sweet interior is one of the most pleasant sensations known to mankind. Cleopatra obviously didn't agree. But then she did go around holding snakes to her breast, so she clearly can't be taken as a reliable source.
Figs are hardly ever around in this country. They appear in early autumn, but all too quickly are gone for the year. You can buy them all year round if you look hard enough, but they're usually priced ridiculously at something like 60p a fig. They're also the green ones imported from places like Brazil, which are never quite as good as the plump, dark purple Bursa figs from Turkey that come in around September. With the Turkish figs, you actually stand a chance of finding a fairly ripe specimen (after much standing around, attempting to look inconspicuous, and gently squeezing every single fig on the market display). They're full of promise: squat, almost glossy purple fruits, their outer skin curving sensuously around what you can only guess is a gorgeous interior bursting with the crunch of seeds and vibrant, pink, succulent flesh. With the green ones, they're usually quite unpleasant to eat unless you cook with them, possessing a nasty bitter skin and very little juice at all. But who, at 60p a fig, can afford to buy enough to cook with?
Imagine my sheer delight, then, when I found tray upon tray of figs at the market last week. I'd gone to get gooseberries for a tart I had in mind, but this discovery changed everything. I wouldn't normally expect to see figs at this time of year, and especially not priced at £1.50 for eight. Slightly mad with joy, I bought sixteen, with absolutely no idea what I was going to use them for. I would have bought more, believe me, if I had had enough people to cook for. They were imported from Brazil (sorry, carbon-conscious alter ego, but I just can't turn down such an opportunity), but had a lovely purplish tint unlike the normal green ones I've seen before, and some of them actually felt vaguely ripe.
Finally, I could make the kind of fig-heavy dessert I normally only dream about. Even when figs are in season, they're never that cheap, so I can never justify buying the large quantities a lot of dessert recipes call for. With sixteen to play with, the possibilities were almost endless. I thought about using them in a savoury tart with some goat's cheese, but a sweet tart seemed so much more appealing. It was then that I remembered a recipe from Raymond Blanc's Kitchen Secrets a few months ago: a beautiful fig and blackcurrant tart. The recipe stood out in my mind because he had used a rather unusual filling for the tart: instead of the pastry cream or mascarpone one would normally find in a sweet, French-style fruit tart, he had blended together dried figs, blackcurrants, and fig jam. I'd never seen anything like it before, and the idea really intrigued me. I've cooked with figs a lot, and generally think I know what goes well with them, but blackcurrants I'd never considered. Seeing as I am going through a bit of a blackcurrant fetish right now, the timing seemed perfect. A trip to the market and a very lengthy hunt for fig jam later (none of the big food retailers in the city centre sell it - I had to head to the Indian supermarket on Cowley Road), the tart filling was just a click of the blender away.
I did change Raymond's recipe a bit. He used a standard sweet dessert pastry for the tart case, but this didn't really appeal to me, largely because of the amount of butter required (I'm on a bit of a healthy dessert drive at the moment, if you hadn't noticed). Instead, I wanted a thicker, crumbly, more rustic kind of tart case. I thought of the sweet, jammy filling, and suddenly my mind wandered to those Nutrigrain bars I used to eat as a teenager. They pretend to be healthy, but basically consist of artificial-tasting, sugary jam filling encased in a chewy, wholemeal crust. A bit like commercially produced fig rolls. The basic combination of fruit and wholegrain crust is a great one, though, done properly - the denseness of the grains really brings out the sweetness of the fruit without being too much of a sugar-fest. Just think of oatmeal and raisin cookies. I thought I'd make a pastry with oats and wholemeal flour, to provide a contrast in both texture and flavour, and cut down on the amount of butter.
For the crust, then, I used oats soaked in milk, wholemeal flour, plain flour, a little butter and some water. Basically porridge with butter and flour. As someone who would probably bleed porridge if you cut her open, I was excited about this recipe as soon as I conceived it. It produces a pastry that is extremely crumbly and difficult to handle - I basically just pressed it haphazardly into the tart tin after rolling it into a shape that was decidedly un-circular. I blind-baked it for 10 minutes before adding the tart filling. When I put the dollops of sickly fig jam, the dried figs and the blackcurrants in the blender, I had no idea what it would turn into. After blitzing it all for a minute or so, I was startled by two things: the colour, and the smell. I suppose I should have expected it, really, but the blackcurrants had stained the other ingredients with their inky purple juice, becoming a beautiful purple-red paste, flecked with the black skin of the currants and the light brown fig seeds. I could eat this as it is, spread on some wholemeal toast. Raymond is a genius for pairing these two fruits: the blackcurrants are the perfect foil to the heady sweetness of the figs, somehow tempering and accentuating their flavour at the same time. The scent of the grassy currants mingled with the sugary perfume of the figs had me licking the fruit mixture from the blender lid.
After spreading the filling into the crust, I arranged the cut figs on top for baking. Already I was pleased with the way the crust had turned out: it was exactly the thick, crumbly, wholemeal case I wanted, and looked beautiful encasing the startling red fruit purée. I baked it for about 20 minutes, until the figs had softened and turned a little wizened around the edges. I scattered over some more blackcurrants, and then decided to put one inside the hollow of each fig, purely out of my own desire for neatness.
I have to say, removing this tart from the oven was one of the most satisfying things I have ever done in the kitchen, on a par with removing my own-recipe bread or a glorious stuffed roast chicken. I was expecting something to go horribly wrong (and I nearly dropped the tart at the last minute, which had my heart beating unnaturally fast for at least five minutes afterwards) but it didn't. It was just a perfect, rustic-looking, gorgeous fruit tart. What's more, it was bursting with figs. I dusted it with some icing sugar and let it sit for a while until we were ready for dessert, eager to taste the proof in the pudding.
Imagine if I had been a contemporary of Cleopatra. The entire course of history may have been changed. I would have baked this tart for her. She would have realised the error of her ways in prioritising a long life over fig consumption. Her lust for power would have dissolved, transferred to a lust for figs, and she would have fled the royal life for a small shack in the country, surrounded by acres of fig trees, living out the rest of her days as a hermit clad only in fig leaves, sleeping on a bed of figs, munching them whenever the urge struck, returning home at night from a day of fig-gathering to her tiny hut built in the shape of a fig. She would never have met Antony; he would have only heard tales of her, the crazy fig lady of the mountains, told to entertain him as he lay on a couch in Rome being fed grapes by Caesar.
I hope that is a realistic assessment of how delicious this tart is. The oatmeal pastry was, if I say so myself, a stroke of genius. The way it combines with the sweet fruit filling is utterly sublime. It's not the easiest to eat, because its lack of butter means it isn't melt-in-the-mouth like traditional sweet pastry, so you might need a fork and spoon to attack it. But I think this is perfect: it's really crumbly, almost like a fruit crumble or a biscuit, so when you get a mouthful of jammy fruit along with its crispness it's just brilliant. A bit like when you eat scones with jam and cream: the best bit is always the slightly crunchy crust of the top half of the scone contrasted with the soft cream and sweet jam. It also has the nuttiness of oats and wholemeal flour to counteract the sugary filling.
And oh, the filling. Who would have thought, figs and blackcurrants? They certainly form a more harmonious partnership than Antony and Cleopatra. The jam layer underneath the fresh figs is incredibly tart yet sweet at the same time, providing a rich, flavoursome blanket for the juicy, lightly cooked fresh figs on top. They soften yet still keep their shape, and their seeds turn deliciously syrupy in the heat of the oven. Add to that the little juicy burst of a fresh blackcurrant, and the crunch of the nutty pastry, and you basically have heaven. I served this with home-made cinnamon ice cream, though vanilla would work very well too. In fact, I think you could experiment with ice cream flavours here: almond, hazelnut, anise and mint would all work well. Or, if you prefer cream or crême fraiche, go with that - I think the sourness of crême fraiche would work very well with the sweetness of the tart filling. I once made a yoghurt ice cream to go with a fig tarte tatin, which basically involved putting vanilla yoghurt and icing sugar into my ice cream machine. That would work really well too; you need a slightly sour edge to counteract all that fruity flavour.
I am immensely proud of this tart. It looks absolutely stunning, though there really isn't that much effort required. It's also quite unusual, far more interesting than the standard sweet pastry/crême patissiere/berries combination, and - I think - provides a far more satisfying eating experience. It's also a bit healthier than normal fruit tarts, as there isn't much fat in it and no refined sugar (apart from the jam). I'm not sure it could qualify as healthy, as there's a lot of sugar in there, but it's probably better for you than a nutri-grain bar, which was the inspiration.
I love a fig tart better than a long life. Cleopatra would too, if only she'd been able to taste this.
Fig, blackcurrant and oatmeal tart (serves 6-8):
Based on Raymond Blanc's recipe, here.
150g plain flour
150g wholemeal flour
3 tbsp honey
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
2-4 tbsp water
150g blackcurrants, plus extra for decorating
150g dried figs, roughly chopped
100g fig jam (or apricot/raspberry, if you really can't find it)
14 fresh figs
Icing sugar, for decorating
First, make the pastry. Pre-heat the oven to 170C. Soak the oats in the milk for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, rub the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the honey, salt, cinnamon, baking powder, and finally the milky oats. Mix to form a crumbly dough - add water as necessary to keep it together.
Grease a tart tin - mine was about 25cm diameter. If you have one with a removable base, that'll mean you can turn the cooked tart out of the tin, but if you don't (I didn't) you can just serve it in the tin and it'll still look lovely.
Roll out the pastry on a floured work surface into a vaguely circular shape about 1cm thick, and press it into the tart tin (you'll probably have a bit more than you need). Use a knife to trim the edges. Line the case with baking parchment and baking beans and bake for 10-15 minutes until risen and golden.
For the filling, simply blitz together the fig jam, dried figs, and blackcurrants in a blender. Spoon into the tart case. Arrange the fresh figs, halved, on top of the tart - how you do this is up to you, but I arranged mine all pointing upwards.
Bake the tart for 20 minutes. Leave to cool, then scatter with a few more blackcurrants, dust with icing sugar, and serve with your chosen dairy accompaniment.
(If you like, you can glaze the tart with fig jam mixed with a little boiling water - just brush it over the tart once cooled).