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Figgy facts

Dr Iona McCleery

A fig plant (Ficus carica): fruiting stem and halved fruit. Coloured zincograph by J. Macfarlane, c. 1872 (credit: Wellcome Library, London)

Figgy facts: find out more about figs


Fresh figs are becoming increasingly popular today. In February 2014 You Are What You Ate coordinator Iona McCleery was invited onto the BBC Radio 4 show Women’s Hour to talk about figs with presenter Jenni Murray and cook Sophie Grigson. You can listen to their conversation here.

Origins

Figs came originally from the Middle East and were probably first cultivated in Egypt. The ficus family is enormous – 700 varieties – but the main one we eat is the ficus carica, named after Caria in ancient Turkey.  The fig is not strictly a fruit botanically. It is a ‘false fruit’, actually part of the stem of the tree that becomes a fleshy bag for the flowers and seeds. These develop inside and never see the light of day. So when you are eating a fig you are munching on hidden flowers! This is perhaps what gives it its unique texture.

A fig plant (Ficus carica): fruiting stem and halved fruit. Coloured zincograph by J. Macfarlane, c. 1872 (credit: Wellcome Library, London)Fig trees like warm climates but will grow in sheltered places in the UK, often up against a sunny garden wall or in a courtyard. It also grows in greenhouses. One of the first places that figs were grown in the UK was in the courtyard in Lambeth Palace, London, from the middle of the 16th century. The Romans might have tried to grow them in England earlier but there is no evidence that they succeeded.

History

In Ancient Greece, the fig was an everyday food for the poor along with apples, beans and chick peas. In some Greek islands, pressed figs were a substitute for bread and the leaves were used to wrap cheeses and fish. Figs were so important to the Greeks that they banned their export.

In Roman tradition, the twins Romulus and Remus who founded Rome were said to have been suckled by a wolf in the shelter of a fig tree. The Roman statesman Cato the Elder persuaded Rome to go to war over a fig. He explained the nearness of the Carthaginian threat (Carthage was in what is now Tunisia) by showing the Senate a fresh fig and saying –‘this was picked three days ago in Carthage.’ Rome then destroyed Carthage in the Third Punic War (146 BC).

Detail of woodcut of St Catherine, Adam & Eve, heaven, etc. from Here begynneth the orchard of Syon by Catherine of Siena,Wynkyn de WordeLondon 1519 (credit: Wellcome Library, London)Figs have always had religious symbolism. Figs are frequently mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible – most famously Eve sewed fig leaves together to cover her and Adam’s bodies after they ate the fruit of knowledge (Genesis 3:7). They also feature in some of Jesus’s stories in the New Testament. Figs are equally important in Hinduism (where they are dedicated to Vishnu) and in Buddhism (the sacred Banyan tree belongs to the same ficus family). Figs are one of the foods eaten at the end of the Yom Kippur fast in Jewish tradition. In the Middle Ages, figs and other dried fruits were allowed during Christian religious fasts e.g. Advent and Lent. This is one of the reasons why they are still eaten at Christmas (Figgy Pudding – mentioned in We Wish You A Merry Christmas – was an early form of Christmas Pudding).

Everywhere figs have been celebrated as symbols of fertility. This is perhaps because they are packed full of seeds. In the Mediterranean or wherever it is warm enough, fig trees unusually produce fruit more than once a year. Also the sap of the tree is white like milk or sperm. The shape of the fruit is often compared to male genitals. D. H. Lawrence argued in a poem that the fig was female, but for much of history it has been seen as very male in its symbolism. These connotations have led to various originally rude sayings such as ‘I don’t give a fig.’ In Shakespeare’s Henry V (Act 3, scene 6), when the common soldier Pistol refers to a ‘fig of Spain,’ the actor probably should make a rude gesture!

Figs as food and medicine

Apothecary dispensing either - siropus acetosus (medicated syrup), or dried figs. From a folio of Ibn Butlan's manuscript Tacuinum sanitatis (credit: Wellcome Library, London)Compared to how they were eaten in the Mediterranean, we know that dried figs were an expensive luxury import to Britain, both in the Roman Empire and afterwards. Fresh figs simply would not have survived the journey north. In the Middle Ages, figs mainly came from Provence, Spain and Portugal. For example, London customs records for 1480 describe the cargo of a Portuguese ship: bulk supplies of figs, sugar, oranges, animal skins and cork.

Figs were classified as spices and probably bought from apothecaries, along with almonds and raisins. The Duke of Savoy’s cook, Master Chiquart, said in the middle of the fifteenth century that a banquet needed twelve baskets each of raisins, figs, prunes, dates and pine-nuts. Figs and other dried fruits were desired by the rich for their sweetness in an age when sugar was even more expensive. Figs were known to be very rich and filling. Geese whose liver was destined to be turned into pâté de foie gras were fed with figs; this was so commonplace that the words for ‘liver’ in Portuguese and Spanish come from the Latin word for fig.

Leaflet for "California Syrup of Figs: Nature's Pleasant Laxative" 1907, California Fig Syrup Co. (credit: Wellcome Library London)Figs were used medicinally for hundreds of years. Ancient and Medieval medical authors were well-aware of their mild laxative effect. A gentle dose of syrup of figs was given to children to help keep their bowels regular. It was once thought that figs and similar fruits should be eaten at the beginning of a meal so that they did not disturb digestion.

Figs were also good for other things. The 6th century Greek food author Anthimus prescribed them for coughs and hoarse throats as did Nicholas Culpeper in his 17th century herbal. He recommended that the dried fig had to be sucked for a long time – it would have been soothing like a cough sweet is today. Culpeper also said that the leaves and/or sap were good for boils, warts, ulcers, chilblains and bruises. This use represents a very old healing tradition – in the Old Testament, Isaiah used a plaster of figs to treat Hezekiah’s boils (Isaiah: 38: 21). Modern research suggests that figs contain lectins and antioxidants, such as anthocyanins, that seem to improve the human immune response to ulcers.

So next time you eat a fig, remember that it is a healthy, nutritious food with a long and rich history!

References

Anthimus, On the Observance of Foods, ed. M. Grant (Totnes, 1996)
J. Auberger, Manger en Grèce Classique: la Nourriture, ses Plaisirs et ses Contraintes (Québec, 2010)
Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, ed. D.  Vowles (London, 2010)
Du Fait de Cuisine/On Cookery of Master Chiquart (1420), ed. T. Scully (Tempe, Arizona, 2010)
Food in Medieval England: Diet and Nutrition, eds. C. Woolgar, D. Serjeantson and T. Waldron (Oxford, 2006)
Regional Cuisines of Medieval Europe, ed. M. W. Adamson (New York and London, 2002)
E. P. Lansky and H. M. Paavilainen, Figs: the Genus Ficus (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2011)
'Petty Custom Account 1480-1: Imports: Apr - June 1481 (nos 109-157)', The overseas trade of London: exchequer customs accounts: 1480-1 (1990), pp. 33-52. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=36075&strquery=figs
Pliny the Elder, Natural History (Harmondsworth, 1991)
M. Toussaint-Samat, A History of Food, 2nd edn (Chichester, 2009)
J. Wilkins and S. Hill, Food in the Ancient World (Oxford, 2006)

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