A fig-tree that grows in the Forum itself, the meeting place of Rome,
is sacred because things struck by lightning are buried there,
and all the more so for being a reminder
of the fig-tree under which the nurse of Romulus and Remus
first tended the founders of our empire, on the Lupercal.
Pliny the Elder, Natural History. Book XV, 77.
If you visit the Roman Forum you will still see a fig tree, together with an olive tree and a grapevine, growing close together some 50 metres in front of the Curia. Of course it is not the same one as mentioned by Pliny; fig trees have a life of about 20 years. But these three are kept there for old times sake. Fig trees grow all over Rome you will see them on walls, pavements and ruins, where they have germinated from seeds spread by birds and other animals, including humans.
Figs are traditionally worthless; I dont give a fig, It isnt worth a fig, I wouldnt give a fig for it are only a few of the sayings which have grown around the apparent unimportance of these fruits. All this is most unfair, as well as being far from the truth. Figs have been feeding mankind for tens of thousands of years and deserve a happier reputation. In fact, the fig is a most remarkable and surprising plant, worthy of our attention.
The fig is a small deciduous tree with characteristic palmate leaves the same leaves used by Adam and Eve to protect their inhibitions after the fall. One of the most beautiful sights of springtime is the opening of the pale green new fig leaves, especially when viewed against the sunlight. Seeds have been found in early neolithic sites of human habitations dating back to about 7,500 BC, but these were almost certainly from wild figs which are indigenous to the Mediterranean region. The deliberate cultivation of figs dates from about 2,500 BC in the eastern Mediterranean and since then has spread to most countries with a Mediterranean climate California, for example, is now one of the major exporters of the fruit.
The fig itself could be called an inside-out fruit. The flowers are found inside the greeny-purple flask-shaped fig. They are pollinated by a tiny wasp, (blastophaga psenes), known as the fig fly. The insect enters the fruit by way of a small hole in the base in order to feed and, as a consequence, pollinates the flowers which then develop into the ripe fruits. Many of the cultivated varieties have evolved the ability to ripen without pollination (parthenocarpy), but there are still varieties, (and there are over 700 types of fig), which require the fig fly to pollinate them. To aid this, baskets of wild figs are hung among the cultivated trees so that the fly easily finds and pollinates the fruit.
Ripe figs are eaten fresh, canned or dried. Fresh ones do not last long or travel well. Pliny the Elder has the story of the Roman senator Cato who, in order to convince the senators that Carthage should be destroyed, held up a fresh fig in the ancient Senate House and said, Know this: this fig was picked only two days ago in Carthage, thats how near the enemy is to our walls (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book XV, 75). The freshness of the fig resulted in the decision to start the third Punic War and Carthage was razed to the ground as a result. Now say that figs are not important.
As for nutritional value, fresh figs are about 10 per cent sugar with plenty of fibre, potassium, and a little vitamin C. The dried fruit has about 50 per cent sugar, a very high potassium content and the same fibre it also keeps practically forever and is therefore a superb food for confectionery and for storing in general. Dried ones must have been in great demand in prehistoric times as a sure food supply over the winter months.
Fresh figs are available all over Italy from about August onwards, straight from the tree or in the shops and markets. But in Calabria, where figs grow in abundance, numerous delicacies are produced based on the Dottati variety, cultivated and dried on the hills around Cosenza. They include crocette con noci/mandorle (dried figs stuffed with walnuts or almonds and roasted), nocchette di fichi, similar but covered with rich, plain chocolate, bocconcini di fichi (a paste of figs with liquors, minced walnuts or almonds and covered in chocolate), palloni di fichi (dried ones with honey rolled into a ball and wrapped in fig leaves), treccine di fichi (dried figs threaded on cane and roasted) and so on. These delicacies are expensive but worth every euro.