Tuesday, 23 August 2005


Did you know that there are well over 600 kinds of figs? Well, I did not know and I have to disappoint you because I do not know one of them. I only know that there are green and blue figs, but I have no idea what kind they are. I just know where to find the fig trees in my neighbourhood.

Anyhow, that is far more than a lot of people know who visit the island of Lesvos (and probably people visiting Greece in general). Because there is a big group of tourists who only knows dried figs from a package and have not the slightest idea that visiting the island at the end of August means that they probably pass trees with ripe figs more than ten times a day.

Even though a fig tree is easy to recognise. Its green leaves are like a big spread hand with fat round fingers. And everybody will remember a picture of a shy looking Adam covering his under parts with a fig leaf. And yes, that famous covering fig leaf also comes from the fig tree.

Late in August, early in September, you will find the ripe fruit in these trees. In the beginning they look perfectly round and green. Then they will change into the shape of a small pear, some colouring into a deep purple. At their bottom there is a tiny spot that will open once the fruit is ripe. Or you can touch it in order to know if they are ripe. When the figs are soft they are ready to be eaten.

This delicacy is one of the oldest cultivated fruits in the world. Some 3,000 years old fossils bear traces of figs and on many old frescoes there are fig eating people to be seen. It is not entirely clear from where the fig comes although it is probable that they were first cultivated in Arabia and Egypt. From there, around 1600 BC they were brought to Crete and then on to the rest of Greece. The fruit was sacred to the Greeks and it was prohibited to export it without authorisation. As well as Homer, Plato, Aristotle and Theophratus wrote about figs. Then the Romans came and introduced the fig to their empire where the fruit enriched their bacchanals. For them the fig became the symbol of the God of food and beverage (Bacchus).

Charlemagne had figs in his garden and with all the historical conquests and smart traders the fig was soon known in the whole of Europe. In the 16th century the Spanish conquistadors took the fig tree over the sea to South America. And then it was not long before there were also fig trees in what is now North America. Especially California did well in growing fig trees. They now are even that famous for it that Greek cultivators have been importing an American variety to cultivate here in Greece.

In Greece the fig was called 'the bread of the poor'. And even animals were fed with it, like pigs and geese. And what came out of these geese? Goose-liver! That delicious product nowadays so much cherished by the French. Which was original a Greek product. But where is the goose-liver now in Greece? There are enough geese hidden on the island but I never saw goose-liver on a menu.

Yesterday we were originally on a search for blackberries. We drove into the mountains towards the deserted village of Lepetimnos. In this once so fierce village there are still plenty of fruit trees and in between the ruins the blackberries have plenty of space. They were juicy big specimens, thanks to the rains of a few weeks ago. As well as branches full of thick fat figs smiling at us. They asked to be picked, otherwise they would end as dinner for the pigs. A smart farmer has made a pig stall from one of the ruined houses, under a large fig tree, beside an enormous walnut tree. Can you imagine how good these pigs will taste once their life is over?

We had more surprises that afternoon. We discovered the 'grape trees'. In the wild gardens the grapes were free to grow wherever they wanted. And they do like to climb trees. So it is quite crazy if when you are picking a fig, you encounter a big bunch of sweet blue grapes. Enormously big bunches slowly floated through the air on a little breeze, high and unreachable in the tops of walnut trees and hidden behind the big green leaves of the fig trees.

This abundance of fruit did hurt a little bit. When we left this Garden of Eden along a small old path partly covered with rolling stones, we came upon a lane which was full of chestnut trees. The chestnuts had to wait another month before falling off the tree, the grapes which lived in those trees were ripe. We came home that night with plenty of bags filled with fruit. Which meant: work.

To clean the blackberries, make shakes of blackberries and yoghurt, make liquor with blackberries and cognac. Dry figs, bake bread with figs, prepare meat with figs, cut the figs open and fill them with chocolate, over a month brewing fig syrup. Wash the grapes, bring some to the neighbours, make grape jelly, cook fish with grapes. And this is only the beginning of the autumn. Collect almonds, picking apples, conserving pears, looking for pine nuts, making pesto with the rest of the basil. Hammering, hacking, peeling, cooking, baking, preserving, drying. And if it could be just a little bit cooler for all this work...

Copyright © Smitaki 2005

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