Figs have a long history in the Valley, having been farmed in the region for decades. And while many people are familiar with the Fig Newton, industry officials, local chefs and farmers say there is so much more to the fig than a cookie.
These days, figs have taken center stage as savory menu items and are increasingly eaten fresh as a sweet, aromatic treat.
Fig popularity has grown so much that nearly 2,000 people are expected to gather Saturday to celebrate all things fig during the 9th annual Fig Fest at Fresno State. The event will feature 11 restaurants preparing fig dishes to sample and 13 food vendors selling fig and nonfig eats.
The Valley is home to five primary fig varieties: black mission, brown turkey, Calimyrna, Kadota and Sierra. And each has its own distinctive look and flavor.
Karla Stockli, CEO of the Fresno-based California Fig Advisory Board, says one of the easiest ways to describe the flavor of figs is to use wine notes.
For example, the dark, almost purple-skinned black mission has an earthy cabernet-like flavor. Brown turkey figs are light purple, with a robust-like flavor similar to a pinot noir. Calimyrna figs have a pale yellow skin with the buttery, nutty flavor of a chardonnay. Kadota figs have a creamy amber skin and a lighter, sauvignon blanc flavor. And the yellow-skinned Sierra has a flavor similar to a riesling.
Among the biggest fig fans are Chris and Mike Shackelford, owners of Trelio in Clovis.
Chef Mike Shackelford is constantly finding new ways to showcase the acidic and subtle sweetness of figs.
"I totally understand people who say they don't like figs," Shackelford says. "But you really need to try figs in a different way; in a dish with composition and flavor and then decide."
Shackelford recently prepared a grilled fig salad, with arugula, prosciutto, goat cheese and toasted pistachios. The smoky sweetness of the figs balanced well with the saltiness of the prosciutto and richness of the cheese and nuts.
He also enjoys making a thin crust pizza with caramelized shallots, grilled figs, goat cheese and prosciutto.
"I love it when people come in with a preconceived idea of what they think figs are and they leave excited about what they have eaten," Shackelford says.
Fig grower Paul Mesple said that for first timers, figs can seem a little daunting, especially if all you know about figs is the cookie. Mesple recommends people try them fresh or dried.
Mesple sells figs at Kaiser's farmers market and at a family fruit stand. The stand, which also sells Elberta peaches, is open 8 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, at Millbrook and Alluvial avenues. More info: (559) 439-0104. Kaiser Permanente's farmers market, 7300 N. Fresno St., is open on Wednesdays from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
When shopping for figs look for fruit that gives slightly when touched. It should be soft, but not mushy.
"And you don't have to peel them, you can eat them whole," Mesple says. "Just grab the small stem on one end and eat until you reach your fingers."
Fig Fest 2012
9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Fresno State, on the lawn between Ag Science Building and Satellite Student Union. General admission is $8 in advance, $10 at the gate. General Admission with wine tasting: $13 in advance and $15 at the gate. Details: californiafigs.com.
Figgy foster with spiced fig cake and rum caramel sauce
For spiced fig cake:
1 pound dried California mission figs, stems removed
1 cup water
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup chopped pecans