Much to my surprise and delight, I found about a half dozen ripe figs when I checked my tree yesterday. I hadn’t looked for several days, thinking that none seemed close to ripening. But with a couple very hot days and nights, the little gems were plumped to perfection. I stood under the tree with my daughter and we peeled and ate until our hands were sticky and mouths were happy.
The difference in taste between a fig that’s perfectly ripened and one that’s not quite, is remarkable. There are some very distinct signs that a fig is at its optimal moment to pick, and if it doesn’t display these signs, really, don’t bother.
Figs increase in size significantly during the final days of maturing. They go from upright and solid…
…to full and soft, the new weight of the flesh and juices causing them to turn downward and bend at the stem.
If it yields and feels soft and pleasantly doughy with a gentle pinch, then it’s ready. It should pull away from the tree easily when picked.
Although it’s not necessary to peel figs (even though in Italy that’s generally the way fresh figs are eaten), the skin of a ripe fig should detach easily, removing only the thin, outer layer. An unripe fig when peeled will take much more of the flesh with the skin. To peel, hold by the stem and pull downward, sort of like peeling a banana, continuing around the whole fig.
When eaten, a ripe fig has a uniform sweetness and saturates the mouth with flavor. It requires little chewing like an overripe peach whose flesh is as much liquid as solid. There will be none of the slightly tangy aftertaste that can be present with a partially ripe fig.
Eating a sun-warmed, fattened fig plucked straight from the tree is a unique and precious experience. We too often settle for the less-than-exquisite, especially in our food supply, but when you taste something this real and right it’s easy to understand why many of our immigrant ancestors couldn’t bear the thought of leaving this sensation behind.