Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco

The Star Ledger

An introduction to figs

Each year around this time, Socrates Kyritsis’s backyard in Basking Ridge is besieged by what he calls “a lot of friendly invaders.” They come because, in his neighborhood and beyond, he’s known as “the guy that has the fig trees”–75 of them, in fact, bearing 25 different cultivars of the fruit — dark-skinned, light-skinned, and even striped.

At the end of each growing season, the 71-year-old former accountant protects the delicate figs, which he cultivates in plastic pots, from winter’s chills by painstakingly burying them underground, side by side, and insulating them with carpet fiber padding, plywood and tar paper.

For his efforts he’s rewarded in late summer with a bounty of no fewer than 100 figs from each tree. He shares them with his family and friends, as well as with customers at the Marco Polo Restaurant and Tavern in Summit, which he co-owns. He usually uses some of the figs to make marmalade seasoned with cinnamon and vanilla or almond extract. And though he savors the memory of his mother’s home-dried figs stuffed with roasted almonds in his native Cyprus, he says, “mostly I eat them fresh. That’s the best way to enjoy them.”

But why all the bother? Why not just go to the supermarket and buy some fresh figs from California?

“I’ve tried them. They’re tasteless,” is his reply. “Figs ripen on the tree. You have a one-day shelf life. You have to eat them off the tree.”

The roots of the California fig industry stretch to 1769, when the Franciscan Junipero Serra planted fig trees at the Mission San Diego de Alcala. Although there are hundreds of fig varieties, only about a half dozen are commercially grown. These include the dark-skinned Black Mission figs and the yellow-green-skinned Calimyrna and Kadota figs.

Like many other markets, Delicious Orchards in Colts Neck has carried California figs since July and expects to have them at least until the end of this month. “Depending on the quality, we’ll go a little longer, if we can,” said George Simmons, the store’s fruit manager. “We have seen them very good from California,” he said. But, he noted, “I love a fresh-picked local fig.”

And so, this year he has contracted with a local farm, which has about 15 fig trees, to supply him with tree-ripened fruit, which he expects to sell for 50 cents each. “I just sampled them. They are fantastic,” he said. “If you can pick them, sell them, and eat them all in the same day, you’re way ahead of the game.”

Most Americans, however, have yet to cultivate a passion for the taste of fresh figs. “They ask me, ‘How do you eat it? I’ve never tasted a fig in my life,’” said Kyritsis. (He favors splitting them in half with his hands and popping them in his mouth, skin and all.)

“One problem is getting a consistent, high-quality supply. If you could do that, you could expose more people to them,” said Simmons. From now until mid-October, “the guy that has the fig trees” is doing his part.

Nutrition Notes: Figs have the highest sugar content of all fruits and the highest overall mineral content of all common fruits. Providing more dietary fiber per serving than any other common dried or fresh fruit, figs are rich in potassium, and contain vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron.

Choose and Keep a Good One: Figs should be free of mold, feel heavy for their size, and yield slightly to fingertip pressure. The sweetest figs will have torn skins and a drop of clear sticky syrup at the bottom end. Extremely perishable, they will keep only for a few days. They are best stored in a loosely closed egg carton or in a single layer on a paper-lined tray in the refrigerator.

Cooks’ Suggestions: Pair figs with pungent cheeses and gamey poultry. Make an x at the bottom of a fresh fig and stuff it with a bit of mascarpone, suggests Socrates Kyritsis. Then wrap it in prosciutto or bacon, secure with a toothpick, and bake for about 15 to 20 minutes.

Fun Facts: Considered the world’s oldest cultivated fruit, the fig is actually an inverted flower. The seeds within are drupes, or the real fruit.