Although considered a fruit, the fig is actually an inverted flower. The seeds are the real fruit in figs. Native to areas from Asiatic Turkey to northern India, figs spread to all the countries around the Mediterranean.
Figs have been farmed for thousands of years. Figs or fig trees are mentioned in the Bible more than fifty times. They have been found in jars at the pyramids of Giza. Every inhabitant of Athens was a “philosykos,” literally translated, “a friend of the fig.” Early Olympic athletes were given figs as a training food and fig leaves were made into laurel wreaths and given to the winners of the first Olympics as a “medal.”
The Spaniards brought figs to the Americas in the early 16th century. The missionary fathers brought them to California hence the name Mission fig. The Smyrna fig was imported from Turkey to California in 1882. It was given the name of Calimyrna in honor of the grower’s home.
A History of the Fig
The fig has many biblical ties because it was cultivated in the areas in which events from the Bible took place. It took on symbolic significance when Adam and Eve used fig leaves as the first clothes.
Archaeological finds of this mystical fruit date as far back as around 11,400 B.C.! It has even been posited that the forbidden fruit was a fig, not the apple most commonly portrayed in the fall of Adam and Eve.
Most wild fig trees require pollination. However, there are natural genetic changes that result in a few wild trees that do not require pollination. Reproducing these mutant fig trees can only be done by taking cuttings and intentionally re-planting them. Thus, evidence of fig cultivation has been found that dates this fruit among the earliest crops planted and harvested by humans.
The fig has many biblical ties because it was cultivated in the areas in which events from the Bible took place. It took on symbolic significance when Adam and Eve used fig leaves as the first clothes. Figs are mentioned over fifty times throughout the Bible.
Ficus Carica is most likely indigenous to Asia Minor, part of what we presently know as Turkey. From there, it developed and became widely cultivated throughout the Mediterranean region. Greek and Roman civilizations esteemed figs so highly that their love of the fruit influenced the invasion of Greece by Xerxes and the destruction of Carthage by the Romans. Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, writes a short explanation of the caprification process, whereby the Smyrna type figs are pollinated, in his “History of Animals”. Romulus and Remus are pictured nursing from the mother wolf while underneath a fig tree.
Greeks and Romans helped spread the cultivation of figs to other countries under their influence. At various times, figs abounded in Africa, Portugal, Spain, France, and had even made their way to the Isle of Britain. Turkey has remained a center of fig cultivation and production since the earliest times of the fig. Figs did not make the trip to North America until Franciscan Missionaries from Spain founded Missions in California. Fresno eventually became the center of California fig cultivation and production, and is currently the only region in the US where figs are grown on a large commercial scale.
Turkey is the world's largest fig producer, followed by Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and Iran. The US follows that group at number six, with California accounting for 98% of national production.
Although there are hundreds of varieties, what many find in retail or grocery stores are usually a select few of those which stand out for their superior flavor and sweetness.
Some of these are: Mission, Sierra, Tena, Conadria, and Calimyrna. Figs make excellent back-yard fruit trees because they are hardy (except in climates that have very cold winters, like those in some Northern U.S. states) and they produce a reliably good crop year to year.
The most popular commercial fig variety, Mission Figs, originated in the Mediterranean region. They may have been first cultivated in Spain because they first appeared in California when Franciscan Missionaries brought them from that country. In fact, Mission figs were once also called Franciscana Figs. The Missionaries are the source of this fig's name, the Mission.
Golden figs have a yellow-green exterior skin with their interior ranging from light red to amber. Golden California figs often include Conadria and Sierrra varieties. They have a sweet and mild flavor with a soft, almost creamy inside making it perfect for eating as a snack or adding to salads, confections, and other dishes.
Some say that there is no better way to enjoy a fig than when fresh, but, being such an ancient food, those with culinary talents have created other exquisite ways to eat dried figs throughout history.
Browse our recipes page for inspiration on incorporating dried figs into your favorite dishes!