In the moment, in the darkness I am not sure what has woken me. I lie still and alert, squinting as if this will help me hear more clearly. There is rustling, then crunching and snapping, a little crescendo of noise. I jump out of bed, hanging out the open window, I know who it is and exactly what he’s doing. I shout furiously, waving my kikoi, to scare him off. However he has heard it all before, he pauses, then after a moment or two he continues. The smell of fig is strong and it will take more than my remonstrations to deter him. His ambivalence provokes me, that’s it! I fly downstairs, unlock the door out onto the terrace. I shriek, I throw one of the dog sticks into the night air, I swear profusely, the dogs now join in and we all bark together. He stops his browsing, decides enough is enough and well, I can imagine him trotting off into the night, snout up in the air. We quieten down, straining to listen, all I can hear is the owl hooting with amusement. I stop waving my kikoi and wrap it back around me, breathe in the cool night air fragranced with sweet ripe figs. I glance up at the canopy of winking stars and usher the dogs inside back to bed. Not sure if it was a victory or not.
It appears not. The next morning I survey the damage, our old huge fig tree has branches snapped off, bits of smashed twig and leaf are trampled on the ground. Splattered fruits everywhere, the earth displaced and holes dug . It’s September and the tree has now been pruned a meter up from the ground. A few days before he gorged on the apples on the lower terrace and selfishly left us not one! He is huge and bold, and really rather beautiful as far as wild boar goes, he often visits us at dusk, dark and muscular. It’s the end of summer and he’s hungry. The scent of honeyed fruits is carried far on the summer breeze. He is driven by powerful natural urges to feast when he can and who can blame him for that?
In reality, unlike the apples, there are enough figs to go round. The front of the house is lined with beautiful huge fig trees, softening the austere stone exterior of the house with their enormous, verdant hand-shaped leaves that wave cheery salutations. They were planted long before we were here. Our little micro climate up in the hills appears perfect for them as they have freely seeded themselves all around the garden. We have three female trees, bearing the edible fruit. The level of harvest differs from year to year and as the trees continue to grow and reach huge proportions the pickings are less. However, this year, with lashings of early summer rain, then baked with Mediterranean sunshine, the silver-edged branches are crammed full with small deep purplish-black baubles, nestled amongst a mandala of green.
There is an art to the harvest and it’s all about timing. I’ve learnt that patience is the key and it pays to wait and then wait a little more for the perfect fruit. I try and hold out until the first drop of amber nectar oozes from its ostiole. A little twist and it plops into the hand, pendulous and perfect. It is easy to smudge open, revealing the internal incandescent ruby-red flowers, luscious and full of unctuous sweetness. It’s warm and sticky, and invites you to relish every bite. Whilst it is imperative to wait at the same time, not for too long, as the butterflies and moths, the hornets and wasps and indeed the wild boar are all attracted to its richness, packed full of natural sugars and minerals. They are delicate and spoil easily, so we make a bed of fig leaves in our baskets and are careful to only choose the ones that are ripe. We take our time, stretching as far as we can, pulling the branches down to meet us, it’s not long before our baskets are full.
Over the years I have cooked them every which way. Grilled them with marsala and honey, roasted them with duck breasts and star anise, stewed them with chickpeas in the tagine mixed with spices and chilli, dousing them with fresh coriander. Numerous fig tarts of course! Crumbles and cakes. Fig ice-cream - a delicate pink in colour full of delectable figgy mouthfuls, that is worth a year of waiting. I have pickled them and turned them into hot chutney. A friend this year gave me a recipe to make fig syrup with the new fig leaves - something to look forward to in the Spring. However the thing I love to make most is one of the easiest and that is fig jam.
It’s the most beautiful jam; carmine red, thick and treacly. As it bubbles and splutters away the kitchen fills with a sweet syrupy aroma. I add walnuts, for their earthy texture, a spoonful or two of rosemary or thyme - a nod to the summer sun, a splash of port for all out decadence, and finally plenty of lemon zest and juice to meld it all together. A jarful of luscious Mediterranean living in every jammy spoonful. All that is needed to enjoy the perfect mouthful is cheese - Rocquefort, Pelardon or hard tangy Comté, all bring something different to the table. A perfect alchemy of sweet and savoury that truly makes every meal feel like a feast.
Fig season is our final adieu to the summer. La rentrée is well and truly under way and the mornings now have a chill in the air. I stack my jars of jam, happy knowing I have managed to prolong the season a little longer. We had the first of our Autumn storms this week, it feels like the season has shifted but there are still a few fruits on the tree, not quite ready. Who will enjoy the last pickings? I’ll be sleeping with the windows open and on guard for any nightly visits. The last fig is surely worth fighting for.
A recipe for Fig and Walnut Jam
Enough for four to five jarfuls
1.5 kg of figs – stem removed and quartered
750g jam sugar
Lemons x 2 – squeezed and zested
150g walnuts chopped
2 tablespoons of chopped rosemary or thyme
Place the all the ingredients in a large wide-based saucepan and stir. Leave in the fridge for a day or two.
I find the sugar will dissolve in this time and it takes much less cooking time as the ingredients are well and truly macerated.
Bring to the boil, and cook on a rolling boil for 30 mins. Skim any scum with a slotted spoon from time to time. Stir every now and again to check it is not burning on the bottom.
Meanwhile wash the jars in hot soapy water and let them air dry. Then place them in the oven for 150° Celsius for 15 mins.
Check the jam is ready by placing a teaspoonful onto a cold saucer - when cool push your finger through it - if it wrinkles it is ready.
Use a ladle to fill the hot sterile jars, leaving a centimetre gap at the top. Leave to cool, then place on lids and label. Best enjoyed on a cold, wet day to brighten the mood!