When we moved back to Australia from Italy in the 1970s, we bought a house in what had once been an apple orchard. One or two trees started growing spontaneously and my father supplemented these with a couple of lemon trees, some plum trees and a fig tree. The fig tree was fairly close to the house and grew particularly quickly. Several years later it became a prolific producer of figs – luscious organic green figs, that my mother in particular adored eating. She would also make dozens of jars of fig jam. One day we received a letter from the council stating that they needed to replace our septic tank with a sewerage system. Quite tragically, this was directly in line with the fig tree.
My father secretly cheered as the tree attracted scores of noisy and messy birds during fig season. He would get up on his tallest ladder to net them with old pieces of curtain (we didn’t have much money to buy proper nets). He was often yelling at the birds from the kitchen window: “quei bloody uzei” (“those bloody birds”) he would mutter in dialect. So the fig tree came down and we had to resort to buying figs, which back then were difficult to come by unless you knew someone with a tree. I remember buying them from an older Italian man (many years later) in the car park of the local shopping center. He had heard mamma and I speaking Italian so he approached us and asked if we wanted to buy figs. We followed him to his car and lo and behold, his car boot was full of them! He let us taste them and asked us to pay him “what we thought they were worth”. They were clearly from the tree in his back yard and we bought a few boxes. We went searching the car park other times but never found him again (I should have got his number!).
Although I am not fond of fresh figs eaten on their own, I adore them in cooking. I love making cakes with them, in particular this rustic fig and hazelnut cake, but also savoury dishes. That is the beauty of figs, you can eat them in so many ways. This recipe is very simple and quick but only as good as the quality of the ingredients. Perfectly ripe figs, good quality prosciutto (I always buy San Daniele as I find it to be less salty than Parma) and a blue cheese that is creamy but not too strong (I bought white Castello, as they had run out of the blue variety – either will do though the milder white Castello worked really well). This makes a delicious entree for guests or even a special meal for one. The contrast of the sweetness of the figs and the saltiness of the prosciutto work so well together. You can put them on a bed of salad leaves (or just rucola) and drizzle on some balsamic glaze and extra virgin olive oil. Perfection!
involtini di prosciutto, fichi e formaggio blu (prosciutto wrapped figs with blue cheese)
4 ripe medium-large fresh figs
4 long slices prosciutto (ask them to slice it a bit thicker than usual)
30g (1oz) creamy blue cheese (or a bit more if you like cheese)
handful salad leaves
extra virgin olive oil
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Carefully wash and pat-dry the figs. Remove any stem that there might be and make cross-shape incisions with a sharp knife, being careful not to cut all the way through to the base. Gently prise open the four segments of each fig and insert a slim wedge of cheese. Wrap a slice of prosciutto around each fig so that the cheese on top is exposed. Repeat with remaining figs. Stand the figs in a small baking tray and bake for 9-10 minutes, at which time the prosciutto will be crispy around the edges and the cheese melted (it may take less time of the figs are small so check at 7 minutes).
Whilst the figs are cooking, place washed salad leaves on serving plates. Drizzle a bit of EVOO and balsamic vinegar on the leaves. Place the cooked figs on the prepared salad leaves, and drizzle balsamic glaze on the figs (and on the salad leaves too if you like) and a bit more EVOO. Serve immediately.