The most Jewish fruit?

The fig has played a notable role in Jewish history — and they taste good too.

By Ruth Joseph, September 9, 2011
Figs provided inspiration for Theodor Herzl's dream of a Jewish homeland

Figs provided inspiration for Theodor Herzl's dream of a Jewish homeland

The arrival of plump purple figs is the silver lining to the end of the summer. The timing of their season means that figs (along with pomegranates) are often eaten as a symbolic new fruit for the New Year.

Surely one of the most pleasurable moments of the seasonal calendar is sinking your teeth into a warm, ripe fig. And now, maybe because of climate change, my husband can grow figs in our Welsh garden, and their abundant harvest almost compensates for summer's passing.

But although they have been grown relatively recently in this country, figs have a history that reaches back to the dawn of civilisation. A group of researchers from Bar Ilan University and Harvard University have found carbonised fruits in an archaeological site in the Jordan Valley. These fruits were dated between 1120 BCE and 1140 BCE. BBC News reported that: "Nine small figs measuring just 18mm across… were discovered in a house in an early neolithic village called Gilgal 1, in the Jordan Valley".

What is exciting is that the researchers believed that these fruits were derived from an early domestic crop - a self-pollinating or parthenocarpic variety similar to the type we eat today. These fig trees were not wild and so "mark the point when humans turned from hunting and gathering to food cultivation".

The common fig, ficus carica, also has a fascinating Jewish history. It is mentioned in Genesis that Adam and Eve, after eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, clothed themselves with fig leaves. Since then artists have used fig leaves as a way of indicating modesty.

The Bible (Kings, 4:25) also says: "Each man under his own vine and fig tree", and it was this principle that inspired Theodor Herzl's dream of a Jewish homeland.

The Greeks thought of their figs as so valuable as to be sacred, and consequently it was forbidden by ancient Athens law to steal them or to sell them abroad. Those discovered even reporting the theft were labelled a "sycophant", which means literally "showing the figs".

The fruit, particularly that grown in the region around Athens, became extremely valuable, so much so that the state took over the running of the industry, and its profits. To accuse someone of "double fig dealing" was considered a slanderous insult.

Figs are highly nutritious. A serving of six contains 891 milligrams of potassium - almost twice that in a banana - good for good kidney function, lowering blood pressure and vital for a healthy heart. They are rich in calcium too, which makes them excellent for bone health, and high in tryptophan, which aids sleep. Their fibre value has been used famously for centuries to relieve constipation.

But it is their flavour that attracts. Create an elegant lunch by drizzling two figs per person with honey and lemon juice, and baking until sweetly tender (approximately 20 minutes) in a medium oven. Serve warm on rocket leaves with a good ripe camembert or brie and a few toasted walnuts. Or poach with a harvest of blackberries and a generous glug of kiddush or other sweet wine. Sliced, they are delicious combined with organic Greek yoghurt and a little cinnamon.

Last updated: 11:33am, September 9 2011