In a house where I lived for too long – it was never my home – there is a fig growing in front of a south-facing wall. It is planted in a rough stone bank which holds the soil away from what becomes the cellar wall as the ground falls away. We used to find its fine fibrous roots growing across the brick of the cellar floor, having somehow found their way across the trench and through the outer wall. Each year we would talk about cutting it down and removing it completely, for the sake of the house, but each year it would carry such abundant fruit that we would say, Not yet. Let’s just wait until we have enjoyed the figs. So, each year, it was reprieved. We enjoyed them from mid-July onwards, blackbirds permitting. They are wonderful with a salty cheese like Pecorino or Roquefort, and a drizzle of chestnut honey. One year, the harvest was so abundant that we made chutney and so enjoyed figs with cheese in a very different way throughout the winter.
The fig I refer to is a reliable ‘Brown Turkey’ and produces large, dark figs with red, somewhat mammalian, interiors. I prefer the flavour of them to the gourmand’s ‘White Ischia’, which seems subtle to the point of blandness when compared to the meatiness of a ‘Brown Turkey’. Sometimes, I think certain plants become prized simply for their rarity or difficulty, rather than for any innate virtue. There is nothing rare or difficult about a ‘Brown Turkey’ – its vigour is almost indecent. Last September, I was at Versailles for research. I visited the Le Potager du Roi for personal interest and was deeply disappointed by its dilapidation. I wandered at leisure, being the only visitor, and nobody appeared to be working. I found a large fig tree in a southwest corner of the high walls. It had no label; it had had no care for decades. I picked a pale-skinned fig, broke it, and ate half. It tasted of honey. Perhaps it was sweeter for being stolen. Sadly, it was the only fruit within reach. I believe de La Quintinie, the garden’s first superintendent, would send 2000 figs a day to the kitchens at the palace. It was certainly one way to keep the wheels of state moving. I fantasised for an hour or perhaps a week, about having five good men, and five years, and possibly five Percheron, because the soil is terrible. What I could achieve there! Some dreams cost nothing, and can be a good way of exploring what is held and what can be let go.
Figs grow best when their roots are restricted and, in the UK, thrive when fan-trained against a wall, where they can be a handsome specimen, largely free of pests and diseases. Under glass, red spider mite can be a problem. Plant them in a box formed of paving slabs with rubble in the bottom of the hole. In Greece, on Aegina, twenty years ago, I met a fig tree growing on a south-facing slope of boulders, in conditions so arid, it must have been a desert. The tree was 10m/33′ across and abundantly figged. I picked one and broke it open. It was filled with the tiny black fig wasps which serve the fig as pollinators. The fig is a strange fruit. The skin is really an extension of the stem and the fingers within are individual flowers, each of which sets a seed. The wasps enter through the ostiole, the small orifice on the fig’s bottom. The figs and wasps have depended on each other for so long that there are almost as many thousands of species of one as of the other. I expect I may have unwittingly eaten as many wasps as I have figs, but neither I nor the fig are vegetarian. The fig excretes an enzyme, ficin, which dissolves any wasps which die inside it. The tree eats the wasps which serve its needs.