Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 14

5:45 p.m.

We had a cup of coffee to kick off the evening. And then we planned.

          “We should probably do something,” I suggested convinced I had seen and said just about everything a person could about an eggplant.

          “Sounds good,” agreed Fernando. “But with this heat, there is only one thing I can think of. We should probably go swimming. Or at least go for a swim. It’s not the same you know.”

          “Oh, I could go for that!” seconded Laura as she caressed a tomato.

          “But first let’s get the car in the car port before it gets swiped,” warned Fernando with a wink.

          I was told I could leave the car outside but that it was better off in a neighbor’s garage. Would the neighbor mind? Of course, not. The neighbor was dead. The house was no longer occupied, but the car park was still available and perfect for keeping vehicles off the street.

          “If you say so,” I replied.

          “I do,” said Fernando.

          I backed up the recently deleted Comandante Sánchez Rubio Street, an effortless task since cars were rarely known to traverse it, did a two-point turn and maneuvered the vehicle until it was lined up perpendicularly with the entrance. All that was needed now was for someone to open the door, so I put the car into neutral and called out to Laura. “OK. I’m ready! Can you open the door?”

          “Why are you shouting at me? I’m right next to you in the driver’s seat.”

          “Yeah, but it makes me feel more macho when I bark out commands.” When I leave Madrid, I always feel a little inadequate in the masculinity department. People out in the country seem to work so hard. They enjoy hauling sacks around and often flaunt it in my presence. My heaviest load is usually no more cumbersome than a stack of final exams. I couldn’t quite share that kind of experience with individuals who heave bales of hay and handle scythes with dexterity, and expect them to respect me. It’s as if I needed to uproot a tree or something.

          “So making me get out and open the door in 110º heat is your idea of feeling macho?”

          “Someone needs to tame this 125-horse-power death machine.” I pressed down on the accelerator of my economy-size vehicle.

          “Bless your heart. So much for chivalry.” She tugged at the latch with a jerk and exited.

          “Can you handle the garage door?” I called out.

          “Oh, yeah. I hope so,” she replied facetiously. “I’ve been opening doors for a few years now. I should be all right. I’ll let you know if I need some assistance.”

          “You’d be surprised. Some of them can be real bitches.”

          Spain is considered one of the safest places on earth to live in. It routinely appears in the upper tiers in the world rankings of crime-free indexes, well ahead of nations which most people might, off the top of their heads, consider to be havens for scelerophobics, or people who have a fear of crime. These include Norway, Belgium and Ireland and other places where people tend to drink a lot but otherwise mind their own business.

          The welcome news from the crime reports is especially true of violent offences, the kind I like to be aware of before I decide to reside permanently in any place. According to a 2017 report, Spain was listed second lowest in homicides in Europe, just above Austria, and well below the EU average, which is pretty darn low itself, and a far cry from the numbers they rack up in countries like the United States, where the murder rate is five times worse. America always gets a bad rap for its astronomical killing statistics, and with an average of 15,000 homicides a year, we can safely say the stigma is reasonably justified. In contrast, it’s Europe touts itself as the global pacifist. Is it me, or am I the only one who has paused at least once in life to see the irony in it all? I mean, after Europe nearly wiped out half the human race in two world wars in the 20th Century, can we really say it deserves its reputation for being the paragon of civil behavior? How quickly we forget the loss of 90 million lives. The peoples of the Old Continent may know how to control themselves in traffic jams, post offices and high school proms, but when they do go off, few can hold a candle to them.

          Many traditional elderly Spaniards see things differently and will recall with nostalgia just how good they had it when Franco was alive and the streets were safe. Criminals were wary of exercising their profession in a society where the authorities would not bat an eye when bringing the full weight of the law on them. It appears to be one of the few dubious benefits of living under a police state. Immediately after Franco’s death, though, the country endured several years of crime waves as society’s delinquents enjoyed the freedom of working without the constraints of a dictatorial regime. That meant unfettered felonies and encumbered misdemeanors. Muggings increased, bank robberies flourished. Crooks had a field day until the new democratic system could get a handle on safety. I can personally vouch for the noticeable lack of security in Madrid’s neighborhoods during the 80s and early 90s and found myself victim of a couple of muggings. Nowadays they are rare.

          While the numbers on crime were never that alarming, there was room for improvement and better data came. Dramatically. The murder rate has dropped 43% since 2005 to 292 intentional homicides in 2016. For a country of 46 million people, it’s a reasonably minor figure. Assault and violent theft are also fairly uncommon. Many of the worst violations take place more regularly among groups which are already behaving on the fringe of legality. So, unless you dabble in drug-trafficking, have a tendency to rub the Russian or Armenian mafia the wrong way, mingle with the dregs of society, or pick a fight with a drunken Brit the size of an EasyJet plane, chances are you will be free of any serious harm.

          Property crime is also much lower than it used to be and nothing out of the ordinary for a country this size. For example, whereas 420 people for every 100,000 have been victims of robbery in Spain, in Holland, locked firmly in the first position, 1,400 citizens and visitors report a similar crime annually. And Denmark is almost as bad. I used to think these places were archetypes of crimelessness, but to my stupor, they are actually paradises for burglars. Who would have guessed?

          Despite the encouraging data, the Spanish seem little convinced and continue to busy themselves bolstering their crime prevention measures to a degree that would appear inconsistent with the overall feeling of safety that pervades in this land. In fact, keeping personal possessions free from human intrusion is nearly a national obsession, when not a pastime. Hand the average Spaniard a padlock and their minds dance with delight at all the possible places they can dangle it from. It’s a paranoia so ingrained that when my Spanish friends cross the Atlantic Ocean to visit my country, they are flabbergasted when the see how lax we are in the States about security. Cars are left unlocked and homes are often shockingly easy to access. There is often a hundred ways to get in and the locks are so dinky they could be picked with a cotton swab. If a burglar wanted to get in, they could, it’s as simple as that. Even the dogs can often be cajoled with a box of Fig Newtons. Spaniards, however, often forget the one danger robbers in the U.S. are often confronted with when engaging in their lawless activities: they can and will get shot, and that’s a pretty good deterrent in itself.

          Back in Spain people don’t care for blowing each other away; instead they just fortify their worlds like banks and hope for the best. Properties and other personal assets are often gated, bolted, locked, doubled-locked, padlocked, chained, reinforced, shuttered, fenced off, rigged with alarms, equipped with cameras, lined with barbed wire, walled up and crowned with broken glass incrusted in cement, and then often populated with loud, undernourished and under-loved dogs that let out strident bursts of barking at the slightest encroachment of anything no more menacing than a butterfly. It can be a nerve-racking experience as you walk down the streets of these villages and are assaulted verbally by hounds of all sizes, shapes and vocal chords. They are clearly displeased with their existence and successfully convey their discontentment to each and every passerby.

          Accessing a home can be a challenge even for the owners. I once stayed at a beach apartment where I was required to get by four gates and two doors just to enter the apartment. Not so surprisingly, as I penetrated the environs of my holiday vacation spot, I found myself humming the opening tune of the TV series Get Smart.

          So I wasn’t entirely surprised to see Laura have to take on multiple obstacles in order to get our Toyota into safe harbor. Entering the garage meant unlocking and opening an iron gate and pushing its doors wide open into a folded position; then using a second key to go through a small iron door which allowed you to reach a pin on one end of another larger iron gate, remove it, and slide it across. If you are on your own, you will have to race back to the car, assuming it’s still there, and drive it inside and under the corrugated tin roof to protect it from the punishing sunlight. Luckily enough, I could count on Laura’s adept abilities at breaking and entering, and the procedure was completed without an incident. Once we were out of the car, we locked it, pulled the handle to make sure it couldn’t be broken into, slid the main garage door back, slipped the pin on, exited the small door, turned the key to lock it, unfolded and pushed the iron gates back into position, held the two ends in place and introduce the key quickly to snap it shut. Then came the inevitable, “Oh, shit, I think I left my Tic-Tacs in the car,” or something existential like that.

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 13

          Figs are a different story all together, as you would expect, and certainly more familiar. They share the same order in their taxonomic rank as the quince, though come from different families. They both have roots, trunks, branches, leaves and fruit, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

          Figs have been around a long time. And I mean a real long time. As many know, the Bible mentions it for the first time in Genesis, when Adam and Eve, upon realizing the truth of their nakedness, sew together fig leaves to cover their loins. In fact, it’s the first plant to be referred to by name. In 2006, a report came out asserting they are probably the first domesticated plant in human history, cultivated for the first time in Jordan around 11,500 years ago, possibly a thousand years before even wheat was tamed; it’s a place of honor the modern fig sector simply does not exploit enough for commercial ends, if you ask me.     

          Their fruit is recognizable to many Americans in the form of a pasty jam square wrapped in a soft but crumbly cookie known as a Fig Newton. The cakey snack has been around since the 1890s and is remarkable, even today, for its use of real fruit, a particular source of pride for its makers. It also apparently contains enough sugar to run a car, but let’s not go there.

          Pot-smoking college students between bong hits will swear by it when they tell you the name of the product was thought up in honor of Sir Isaac Newton to highlight the greatness of the invention, but the theory has been thoroughly debunked as urban legendry. The name for the fig roll actually comes from the town Newton, Massachusetts, chosen for no other reason than that it sounded better than “Fig Cambridge”, where the factory was actually located. I can see their point.

          The original owners of the company have long since stepped aside and let the big names takeover. First came Nabisco, who bought it out, along with just about every other blessed biscuit from America; then Kraft came on the scene and gobbled up Nabisco. That’s the very same Kraft which spent much of the end of the 20th Century wooing the world’s largest tobacco companies, RJ Reynolds and Phillip Morris. Together they combined to generate an arsenal of the most toxic habit-producing food and smoking brands civilization has ever known. Few enterprises in history have done so much to poison the human body, and made a killing in the process.

          Nabisco still uses its brand name, but the parent company is no longer known as such; it now goes by a humdrum moniker Snackworks. Kraft has also been rechristened, and now goes by an even quirkier “Mondelez International”, and earns on average around 26 billion dollars. It holds about $63 billion in total assets, placing it somewhere around 70th in the rankings of GNP by country. That means its economy is heartier than some 134 nations. It’s a colossal company, to say the least. And yes, Fig Newtons still adorn our supermarket shelves, though the “Fig” part has been officially dropped because they also market different flavors. Their continued popularity is backed by their consistently upbeat annual sales performance.

          While not considered a major world supplier of the fruit, Spain does a respectable job in fig production. It’s currently second in the European Union and ninth overall in the world, producing somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 tons a year, though crop yield will predictably rise and fall dramatically from season to season. Most of the produce comes from the region of Extremadura to the west, but Cebolla has proven itself an important enclave, generating a yearly output of some 800,000 kgs. This explains the presence of a fig tree on the town seal and the way locals sometimes dub their home “Capital del Higo”.

          Regardless, figs are curious plants. To begin with, they tend to have fecund production cycles; many trees can pump out two crops a year. The first is called the breba crop, and it turns ripe in early summer. In Spain, they are known as brevas. Brebas are generally inferior in quality to normal figs but I know for a fact you can find them in the markets and supermarkets, usually in June and July. They are sold fresh, but they can also be dried. Then, just a few months later, the main crop appears and is harvested.

          Perhaps one of the most unusual characteristics about figs is their reproduction system. Fig flowers are different in that they appear inside the fruit. In fact, technically-speaking, the fig is not a fruit at all, but a bulbous-shaped sack known as a syconium –a word so uncommon it doesn’t even come up in my spellcheck. The syconium contains hundreds of these flowers which are pollinated through a fascinating yet bizarre procedure. It requires the use of specific wasps specially and genetically designed to penetrate the “fruit”. This is no fluke. It’s the result of a complex evolution of mutual codependency which has developed over the last 60 to 90 million years. Yes, just about the time when modern mammals began to appear on this planet for the first time and the last time my baseball team won the World Series. You could say they’ve had a very long-term relationship.

          The life of a fig wasp can be described more or less in one word: miserable. Males bear two main responsibilities once they are born. First they mate and then they bore a hole through the fruit to the outside in order to allow the ladies to depart comfortably. Then they croak. The females make the most of the escape route prepared by their counterparts and enjoy a brief period of freedom flying around the sunny countryside until they come upon another piece of male fruit to invade. At this point they must force their way inside the syconium. This is an arduous task whose success comes at a hefty price. In order to wriggle their way into the center where the flowers are, the female must exert such an effort that her wings are literally ripped off, making the mission that of no return. Once the eggs are laid, she too will die.

          The process starts all over. We can all hum the “Circle of Life”.

          Does that mean every time we sink our teeth into a fig, we are mashing away at hundreds of baby wasps? Is that what those crunchy things are? Hardly. Those pieces of fruit are not consumed, because they generally come from a tree called a caprifig cultivar, which specializes in allowing the wasps to breed. The resulting figs are not edible. The pollen from the caprifig is used to fertilize other varieties, though. On occasion, a wasp will get very confused and enter the wrong kind of syconium and unsuccessfully try to lay eggs. It soon dies and the enzymes from the fruit break down the insect until it is no longer recognizable. Generally. Even if remnants do linger, we are able to digest them without the slightest worry of injury or health issues. They do us no harm. Regardless, it’s a little fact I’m sure the sector would not like to highlight.

          Much of the figs that are sold in the United States do not need this complex form of pollination. The common fig relies on pathenocarpy (another word that makes my spellcheck raise its eyebrows in surprise), a process through which the fruit develops without fertilization. Seedless watermelons, grapes and bananas are three more recognizable examples of this system.

           Unlike the quince, fresh figs can be and are consumed and enjoyed. Its unprocessed flesh is soft around the edges, and ruby-red, milky and granular at the heart. They are especially refreshing on summer evenings. The dried version is probably what captivates the market, catapulting it to international fame, as well as into our cookies. This process is fairly straightforward and entails laying the figs out in the sun and covering them with a cloth to prevent potential fruit-seekers from swarming. Large operations will actually gather the thousands of pieces of fruit and line them up in long rows between the trees for several dates before getting scooped up by a tractor, sorted from the rest of the debris and sent to place for processing and packaging.

          Figs generally boast near superhero powers when it comes to healthiness. Nutritionally-speaking they contain tons of fiber, vitamins (like A, B, C and K), and minerals such as potassium, copper, magnesium and calcium. And the effects? They reduce, lower, control, ease, boost, enhance, improve and prevent just about everything that needs reducing, lowering, controlling, easing, boosting, enhancing, improving and preventing. They are some of the finest food nature can provide.

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 12

“Ignore him. He just doesn’t like organic food.”

      Laura was right. I didn’t. If only out of loyalty to my 1970s childhood diet of Fruit Loops, whole milk laced with Nestle’s Quik, yodels, double stuff Oreos, Twinkies, Swanson’s TV dinners, cube steak (whatever the hell that was), Rice-a-Roni, Hamburger Helper, frozen vegetables, concentrated fruit of all kinds, MSG-laced everything, and many, many more delicacies of the day. These were the building blocks of our youthful organisms. My generation was nourished on this regime and survived to tell the story. The fact that we aren’t collectively residing in the municipal cemetery is a testament to the strength and malleability of human bodies. We are a marvel to the medical world. And yet, nowadays, the mere mention of a “Pop Tart” can get you removed from anyone’s premises for promoting drug abuse.

          “I think it’s great,” I lied. “Not as much as you. Laura’s so organic she was born in a peapod. But that’s not what I’m saying. I just can’t stand the prices you pay. 5 euros for 250 gram package of chickpea pasta. That doesn’t even sound appetizing. Plus, it’s a chickpea for the love of God. Where does my money go? Not pesticide, that’s for sure.”

          “It’s the future, whether you like it or not,” said Fernando. “So accept it and enjoy.”

          “Legalized larceny is the future? I’m glad I’m over the hill. But just so you know, I’ll try, but I’m making no promises.”

          I focused my attention on reviewing the state of the fruit trees, especially the quince, because a person like me doesn’t often get the chance to regard one for any extended time every day. If you’ve just scratched your head and said to yourself, “What the hell is a ‘quince’?” by no means should you feel alone in your ignorance. It’s not you. It’s the fruit and the fruit’s status. In Spanish, the tree is called “membrillo” and the fruit it bears goes by the same name. I know I had never heard of a quince tree until I got to this country, and up until then I had gone about my life just as happily. It is not very common in Western Europe or America. Most of the fruit is produced in the Middle East, the middle Asian countries and China. But if someone has to carry their weight for Europe, it’s Spain. It leads the pack in the EU, and is tenth in overall world production.

          The quince actually belongs to the rose family and is a distant relative of some of this planet’s most recognizable deciduous produce: apples, peaches, apricots, pears, plums, cherries, strawberries, to name just a few. There is little dainty or delicate about the quince fruit though. You’d think it was Nature’s attempt to grow bowling balls. Collecting it can be a hazardous procedure, too, as it has a nasty habit of detaching itself from the limb and crashing onto the head of anyone who happens to be foolish enough to be loitering underneath. I was one of those unlucky souls one day, and had to be carried unconscious by Laura and three others to safety. I try to play this compromising episode down at dinner parties and other social gatherings.

          It is generally so hard and acidic that you’d probably have to be subjected to a prolonged siege before resorting to eating it raw. If you insist on ingesting it, for the love of god don’t take a bite out of it. First, try boiling it slowly in water and lemon, sweetening it in heaps of sugar then mashing it and molding it into a square brick of granular jelly. Then give it a go. By then, you’ve come up with something more than just palatable, it’s downright delicious. It is known as “dulce de membrillo”. People generally pair it with soft cheese and eat it as a dessert.