The figs are ripening! It was just last Thursday when I discovered that the first three figs on our backyard Green Italian fig tree were ready for picking. Even though I have had fig trees in the garden for over a decade it is only been in the last few years that I have readily enjoyed fresh, RIPE figs.
When my husband and I bought our house 13 years ago I was excited about having a backyard fig tree of my very own. Not that there was an existing fig tree in the non-existent back garden of the sweet little house on Grant Street when we bought it. At that time the backyard consisted of a patch of sad grass, Laurel hedges on three sides and a massive, dying cedar tree.
We got the keys to the house on the first of June and by early July we had already removed two of the massive Laurel hedges. On the east side of the yard I planted raspberry canes and a few vegetables. At the back I began a small woodland garden with hostas and ferns and Solomon’s Seal that are indigenous to our region. On the west side of the yard it was all about flowers. Rudibeckia, hydrangeas, dahlias, even a rose bush or two. Near the house I started a formal herb garden after I convinced my husband and a good friend to dig out the area and lay it with bricks in a diamond shaped pattern that was perfect for the mint, thyme, rosemary, lavender, tarragon, and parsley I planted there.
It wasn’t until year two that I got around to planting a fig tree. Our Italian neighbourhood in Vancouver was known for its coffee bars, delis and front yard fig trees. The old men, strolling home from playing bocce in the park, would sidle up to the trees in neighbouring yards to pilfer a fig (or five) during late August and September. I love figs and was excited at the prospect of growing my own in my slowly evolving back garden.
Off I marched to the Figaro’s Garden, our local garden store, in search of the perfect specimen. I found a tree, checked the price, paid my money and dragged it home.
I took my time deciding where to plant my new treasured garden addition. It needed full sun, of course, but should be sheltered from the wind. Near the house at the corner of the herb garden would be perfect. I planted it, I watered it and put compost around the base. And it grew! I knew not to expect any figs until it had been in the ground for a couple of years or so. I watered and fertilized and waited. On year three there were figs on the tree in the spring! I was so excited! However, by the end of the summer they were still very green, very hard and inedible.
After some quick research (that I really should have done before buying, planting and watering the tree) I soon realized that my Brown Turkey fig tree was not suited to our cool, wet northwest climate. It would happily thrive in California and produce an abundance of deep purple skinned, sweet, juicy figs, but not in Vancouver.
I went back to the drawing board. This time I convinced a neighbour with a prolific Green Italian fig tree to give me a cutting from his lovely tree. This was just four years ago and so the tree is still small but it does manage to produce 40 figs each year.
I still have the Brown Turkey in a corner of the garden and it has grown into an incredibly handsome tree. During an especially warm summer I may get 35 ripe figs which I eat out of hand, standing beside the tree, scarfing them down, before the birds can get them. Even though it produces very few figs the tree has established it’s place in the garden. It belongs there. I often look at that now 12 year old tree and think of all that I have learned in this garden over the last many years.
During the fig-less years, before my second fruitful tree was planted, all I had was an abundance of beautiful deep green fig leaves. I used them to line platters for cheese or charcuterie. Then I thought that there must be more inventive, culinary-inspired way to use the leaves. A bit more research was in order.
Turns out that fig leaves can be used to infuse flavour into meat and fish when wrapped around the protein and grilled. Some people use the leaves to make tea, while others boil the leaves and stuff them with minced meat and herbs and/or cheese.
But the best thing I stumbled across was a recipe for fig leaf ice cream. I was intrigued when I read about it. Fig leaf ice cream? One person commented that it tasted a bit like coconut mixed with fig. I was doubly intrigued. So I made some.
For me, the flavour has a bit of a coconut component and there is definitely some fig flavour too. But I also taste some almond and honey as well. It is hard to pin down. I would almost describe the flavour as ethereal. Ethereal and delicious and unusual and made from the often forgotten and very much underrated fig leaf.
You will not be able to head off to the grocery store to pick up some fig leaves but perhaps a friend or acquaintance might have a front or backyard fig tree. It doesn’t matter if it is a Black Mission, Brown Turkey or an Italian Green tree. Any fresh fig leaf will do. And anyone who has a tree knows there are plenty of leaves to share.
Maybe head off and ask your neighbour. Just promise some ice cream in return.
Fig Leaf Ice Cream
1 cup (250 ml) whole milk
3 large fig leaves, stems removed, coarsely chopped
Pinch of salt
3/4 cup (150 g) sugar
2 cups (500 ml ) heavy cream
5 large egg yolks
Scald the milk and the chopped fig leaves in a medium sauce pan. Remove from heat, cover and allow to steep for 20 minutes.
Pour the cream into a medium bowl and place a strainer over top of the bowl. Set aside.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg yolks with the sugar and the pinch of salt. Strain the fig leaves from the milk and then rewarm the milk and then gradually pour some of the milk into the bowl with the yolks, whisking constantly as you pour the milk.
Return this mixture to the medium sauce pan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly with a heat resistant spatula, until the custard is thick enough that it coats the spatula.
Once the custard is thickened remove from the heat and strain into the heavy cream. Place this mixture over an ice bath and stir until chilled. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or for up to two days.
Churn the custard in an ice cream maker following the manufacturer’s instruction.
Makes 1 scant pint (1 L)