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.

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