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Majorcan Figs

September 11, 2006

Although the fig is as old as the Bible, perhaps even the tree in the Garden of Eden, I never ate a fig straight from a tree until I was the chef of a restaurant in Majorca, Spain. Now I have them growing in my Charleston garden. Our tree is still eking out only a few a day, but is covered with tiny green ones I think of as figlets.

Only those who have eaten a perfectly ripe fig have experienced this flawless sweetness. It does not even insist you have another. The lingering taste in your mouth is perfect in itself. For now you are satisfied. And then, as your mouth remembers that sweetness, that unique perfection, you may want another. It is worth waiting all year for the fruit, and for praying that it may come twice in one year.

The figs fruited in Majorca about the same time as they do here, and I watched the figs on a huge fig tree with interest each morning as I walked through the rose and herb gardens from our apartment to the Finca which housed the restaurant and its customary former olive press. I never saw a flower on the tree, and then, much to my amazement, all of a sudden little green figlets appeared. Over the summer, they grew until one day I was able to pick a fig ripe enough to eat.

I picked several that morning, and took them up to the restaurant, holding them carefully as I walked up the brick stairs, for they bruise easily. The Maitre’ D, a slender, proud man with contempt for women in the kitchen, looked at what I had in my hand. “Why are you carrying pig food?” he asked.

“Pig food,” I said, “no, these are figs, ripe from one of our trees, in front of the finca.”

“In my town,” he said, “we have no use for eating figs. We feed them to our pigs, just as in olden times they fed them to the geese. They give them a sweetness and tenderness just before the fall, when it is time for slaughter.” He was not from the Island, but was also a Catalanian, with the fiery temper and dark flashing eyes attributed to the men of that region. We tolerated each other, but there was no great admiration on either side. I thought him a peacock, more finery than substance, and he thought I -- well, that is best left unsaid.

“We,” I said, holding my figs to my chest, “eat them. We feed peanuts to our pigs in Virginia.” (This was a bit of a stretch of the truth, since I had never owned pigs, and had only heard about Virginia pigs being fed peanuts.)

I passed on to the kitchen and finished eating my figs, relishing every bite.

As the days went on and the figs became more abundant, I started gathering them and taking them up to the restaurant for my breakfast. Finally, there were so many I decided there were enough to put a small bowl full of each on each table in the restaurant. I rinsed and dried them and set them out and returned to the kitchen.

Some time later I heard a bellow from the restaurant. “Figs on the table!!” he was screaming. “Figs on the tables!”

I went out to see what the commotion was about. “But people like them,” I said. “They will be thrilled to see them on the table.” Most of our clientele was British and, in fact, would have been thrilled to see figs ready to eat.

“I won’t have it,” he screamed at me, “I won’t have figs on my table. I told you they are pig food. I won’t have it.”

He started tossing the figs out of the bowls onto the tile floor. Some he threw at me. The maids gathered round to stare at him, silently watching. I retreated to the kitchen. I had lost. The dining room was his, the kitchen mine. I knew the lines had been drawn about the figs, and I could not adorn the tables with them. He watched me retreat, hands folded across his chest.

The next day was, naturally, another day. I picked more ripe figs. I made an “x” -- two perpendicular partial cuts through each fig and then opened them out like flowers. I added some strips of the lovely Spanish dried Serrano ham, rolling them into little flowers as well.

When he came in to find out the menu of the day, I told him figs with Serrano ham were one of the first courses.

“No one will order them!” he said.

“Of course they will!” I insisted.

He turned on his heel and left the kitchen.

Of course no one ordered any. When I went out to circulate amongst the guests, I realized he hadn’t told the guests they were on the menu. I decided not to fight that battle and instead made a variety of fig dishes just for myself and my husband. Figs with Serrano ham. Grilled Figs with Foie Gras. Fig Cake, Fig pie, fig salad and more than I can remember. Some of these recipes are here for you. (If you are too lazy to make your own Jam, Mr. Burbage on Broad Street in Charleston has some at Burbages that he made himself.)

And, oh, yes, you might question, if the Maitre d’ threw figs at me, did I throw something at him, ever? The answer is, the night I was alone in the kitchen and the gas ran out mid-dinner, which in Majorca was close to midnight. The enormous replacement tank, too heavy for me, needed to be changed out, and he petulantly refused to help. I threw a pot of boiled potatoes at him. He changed the tank after he brushed the smushed white off his tux. I have never regretted throwing those potatoes, but have never had such an opportunity again. Perhaps because there are no Catalanians in my life. Or because I am no longer the chef of a restaurant.

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A beautiful book, winner of the James Beard Award for Entertaining, that will help the novice and the experienced alike.
The best of traditional Southern cooking, as well as innovative, new cuisine.
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