When I was a child, my mother and I lived in an old red-brick house in suburban Perth, girt by a Bottlebrush hedge and river sand. It was a beautiful old place; slightly cold in winter and hot in summer, but essentially full of character. I loved every part of it in a very sentimental way; the splotchy brown carpet, the crackling warmth of an original oil-fueled fireplace, the speckled, hand-painted kitchen cupboards in bright shades of gold and blue.
My mother poured a lot of love into that old place. It was all we could afford when I was a fledgling human of three short years and little courage. I knew nothing of how little we had, spending most of my irresponsible youth in the garden catching bugs and evasive butterflies. My mother, on the other hand, worked the second shift, nursing part time whilst caring for me, ironing for extra pennies and maintaining the property’s crumbling old fixtures and superfluous garden on weekends.
Ah, maintenance. It’s the bugbear of many established home owners, and my mother was no different. Well, actually, I need to correct that statement: she was different, in the sense that she attempted to be both mother and father to me and our rambling property. Around work and mothering commitments, she attacked everything from crumbling lino in the bathroom to invasive rubber tree roots and holes in the kitchen cupboards. Over the years, she amassed a sizeable tool collection, a ‘utility drawer’ and much on-the-job learning, much to the bemusement of men in our social circle.
As for me? Well, I ‘helped’. This mostly included handing my mother tools at various intervals, though I do recollect one occasion when I got up early to ‘surprise’ her by stripping the kitchen cupboards in readiness for a fresh paint job. I think I was about six years old, pyjama-clad and keen. I sat with a paint scraper in the early hours of the morning for about sixty minutes before mum rose wearily from her bed. Whilst rubbing her eyes, she discovered that I’d scraped off all of the primer she’d applied the night before. With a weary smile, she gave her little helper a hug before starting to make me my favourite breakfast: a runny boiled egg with toast soldiers. Now, that’s one hundred percent love: lavishing generosity and time upon someone, noticing their pure intent, when you’d probably rather kick their ass. She’s my hero; she always has been, and she always will be. She’s the strongest person that I’ve ever met.
So; by now you may be wondering why I’m traveling down memory lane as a prelude to a recipe for roasted figs. It’s primarily due to a strong personal association between fresh figs, my childhood and our old house amongst the trees. Living in that house exposed me to the fact that fresh chayotes grew on vine-covered fences, that passionfruit wasn’t always sweet and that mulberries stained fingers and toes. We didn’t grow all of this produce ourselves; rather, there were quite a few Vietnamese immigrants in our suburb who shared a penchant for turning their front yards into market gardens. Mum and I used to walk around our suburb regularly, hand in hand, and occasionally I’d pick a mulberry from a roadside tree. It was during one of these walks that I first discovered the deciduous wonderment of a live, blushing fig tree.
I still remember that first bite; sweet, unusually thread-like, with crunchy seeds and slightly savoury skin. I didn’t like it much to begin with, presumably due to the fact that it was worlds apart from my favourite fruit, the Kensington Pride mango. Nevertheless, it left a unique mark on my mind that remained until I rediscovered this fruit in dried form some years later. Being a typical, sugar-obsessed child, I liked this version much more than the fresh, mild fig I’d eaten by the roadside. But now, with both time and experience under my belt, I’ve developed a new appreciation for the delicacy of fresh, perfectly ripe figs. They’re versatile enough to add to both sweet and savoury dishes, whilst their unsurpassed beauty adds a touch of sophistication to any serving platter.
In most countries, figs are at their peak in summer and autumn. During these months, I’ll quite happily eat them straight from their skins with sticky fingers and a smile of sweet content. However, towards the end of the season, figs often become more woody and flavourless. On these occasions, I’ll often slice them onto an oven tray with a bit of honey, cracked black pepper and some woody herbs to accentuate their subtle flavour.
In under half an hour, your figs will be transformed into sticky, sweet-but-savoury goodness with a caramelised crust that goes beautifully with mild chèvre. I’ve included a rough recipe below, but feel free to experiment with quantities and whatever toppings you like (well, within reason. Figs don’t compliment tomato sauce). Just remember that you want to accentuate the flavour of the figs, not mask it, and you can’t go wrong. So, I’d encourage you to give this recipe a go: eat well, then smile with seeds in your teeth. Life’s too short to do otherwise.
Roasted Figs with Wild Thyme Honey
Serves 4-6 as a cheese course
- 8-10 fresh figs
- 1/4 cup honey (I use J.Friend and Co. New Zealand Artisan Honey: Wild Thyme)
- 2 large sprigs fresh rosemary
- small bunch of fresh thyme
- Fresh cracked black pepper
Pre-heat your oven to 180 degrees C (356 degrees f). Wash and stem your figs before slicing them into 1cm thick slices (vertically) and arranging them in a single layer on a lined baking tray. Drizzle the honey and herbs on top before grinding fresh black pepper into everything.
Roast your figs for about 15 minutes, turning them half way if the top starts to brown. When they are ready, the figs should be light golden, softened and fragrant with caramel and herbaceous notes.
At this stage, remove your figs from the oven and cool them on their lined trays. When the figs reach room temperature, place them onto a serving platter with some mild soft cheese, crispbreads and some salty prosciutto.
- Figs are not only delicious; they’re incredibly good for you. They are the richest plant source of calcium known to man, whilst also containing significant amounts of fibre, copper, manganese, magnesium, vitamin K and potassium. Nutritional analysis has also revealed trace elements of flavonoids, polyphenols and antioxidants.
- If you like dried figs but often find supermarket versions to be too sweet, try these little figs from Whisk & Pin. They’re chewy, subtly sweet and delicious in everything from your morning cereal to a spiced lamb tagine. Try poaching them in sugar syrup with cinnamon and vanilla before serving them with bircher muesli or yoghurt for breakfast. Yum.
- Natural partners to figs are prosciutto, bacon (it works!), goats cheese (or any other soft white cheese, such as mascarpone, ricotta and chèvre), walnuts and hazelnuts. For a delicious treat, try stuffing them with thyme-honey-infused mascarpone or ricotta cheese, a little orange zest and fresh thyme.
For some more information on J. Friend and Co’s organic, carbon zero, single-vintage artisan honey, check out their beautiful website here. This company is a partnership between New Zealanders’ Jeremy Friend and Sharyn Woodnorth, both of whom believe in honesty, integrity and 100% sustainable farming. Their products are available for purchase on line, where you can also meet the bee keepers (apiarists) who lovingly harvest every batch… like Ernest from Central Otago (he seems cool). Oh, and by the way, this promotion has been unsolicited and unpaid, based entirely on my positive view of this particular company. My view is entirely my own.