Figs. A biography of seduction.
She’s dark. The colour of bruised midnight. She’s swelled and ripened over three seasons and blushes crimson at her sweet summit—that meeting place for lines tracing up from her full-hipped beauty. Now, in low-angled autumn light under cool leafy canopies, she and her sisters wait in deep purple crowds. Handle figs when full grown and you’ll find velvety skins so tender, so eager to yield, that the slightest pressure will split them gloriously open to reveal the treasure within—the sticky, sweet, scarlet flesh cradling their children, the seeds of endless futures.
That this exotic wonder—whose forbears in all their varieties were kidnapped from Persia, Asia Minor and Syria—has travelled so far from home is a gift to the world. So beloved were they, that more than nine thousand years ago people in Palestine were lining them up in groves to guarantee local supplies, predating even grain cultivation. Fig trees colonised the world’s kinder climates from Afghanistan to India and Portugal, and then in the 15th century were carried to Europe and transported over the Atlantic to the New World to complete their global presence. Higo, anjeer, figue, fico, dumur—whatever they’re named elsewhere—figs are prized for their honeyed succulence wherever they take root. Sun-drying increased their sweetness and nutritional worth, and created an all-season, portable and unspoilable fruit.
History is garlanded with tales of reverence: Cleopatra adored them, ancient Greek athletes devoured vast quantities to enhance their strength and speed, fig frescoes decorated interior walls in Pompeii, Romans valued them in religious ceremonies and offered them as gifts on the first day of the year, and baskets of figs were buried with Egyptian kings whose first thought, once resurrected in the afterlife, was evidently ‘I fancy a fig’.
Cut figs glisten seductively from countless still life paintings across the centuries, and they appear in literature as sensuous symbols for female parts and for fertility. English 20th century writer D.H Lawrence references the symbolism in his famous poem ‘Figs’: ‘The Italians vulgarly say, it stands for the female part; the fig-fruit … the wonderful moist conductivity towards the centre.’ Not content with insulting Italians, he proceeds to instruct us on the ‘proper’ way to eat a fig in society: ‘… split it in four, holding it by the stump, And open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled four-petalled flower. Then you throw away the skin, Which is just like a four-sepalled calyx, After you have taken off the blossom, with your lips.’ Try it. You’ll like it.
My favourite fig story comes from nearby. There’s a sprawling white timber house with striped awnings close to where I live that was once home to tiny, ancient, black-clad Signora Ottini, who came from the small and beautiful volcanic island of Lipari in the Mediterranean to the north east of Sicily. I used to deliver her home to her elderly son Domenico when I found her wandering, lost and confused, in our neighbourhood. One afternoon, Domenico invited me in and interpreted her dialect as she told me stories of her youth. The most entrancing was of summer lunches with her sizeable family. Under a sheltering row of broad fig trees, they gathered and ate together at a long table on a hill with a view to the sapphire sea. Dense leafy layers cooled the baking noontime heat so well that the family could comfortably bear the hottest of days. At the end of each summer lunch, they reached into the greenery and plucked ripe figs, eating them with bread, and with cheese made from the milk of their own goats. Then they dozedt for a while, stretching out in the rustling shade. It sounded like paradise to me.
Paradise is a spreading fig tree laden with fruit. Paradise is a bowl of lush, moist figs and the hands to plunder them. Paradise is ruby flesh in the mouth.
Article by Susie Surtees
Pastel drawing and photography by Susie Surtees