Asheville chefs reflect on figs

PLEASANTLY PECULIAR: Figs, which are actually inverted flowers rather than fruit, are highlighted here by chef Hayette Bouras in a vegan fig and coconut custard tart. Bouras will launch her new restaurant, Sunflower Diner, inside the West Village Market and Deli at the end of this month. Photo by Bouras

This is a sweet time of year for those of us in Western North Carolina who have a fondness for figs. Those intriguingly textured, highly perishable teardrops of goodness help welcome both the school year and the leading edge of autumn with seasonal dishes both sugary and savory.

But beyond the flavor factor, figs also have a certain oddball appeal. Botanically speaking, they are a marvel of sorts, doing their horticultural part to keep Asheville weird. First, contrary to popular belief, figs are not fruit.

“A fig is an inverted flower,” says Alison Arnold, Buncombe County horticulture agent for the N.C. Cooperative Extension. That means that a fig tree, instead of producing a blossom followed by fruit like an apple tree, produces just the fig, which is the blossom (or rather a cluster of many tiny blossoms) — it’s just inside out. “It’s not as straight-forward as an apple, that’s for sure,” says Arnold.

Things start to get really bizarre when one considers how reproduction works with such a tree. As many an internet source will tell you, figs are pollinated through a symbiotic relationship with wasps. The insects must crawl inside the figs to lay their eggs, in turn pollinating the flowers. The wasps then die. Inside the fig.

What? Eww.

“There is a specialized fig wasp species for each type of fig, and the fig is dependent on the wasp for pollination as is the wasp dependent on the fig for habitation,” explains horticulturist Clara Curtis, senior director of mission delivery for The N.C. Arboretum.

But don’t swear off figs just yet — those delicately crunchy bits inside a fresh or dried fig are seeds, not wasp eggs or parts. “Figs produce an enzyme called fiacain or ficin that digests any dead wasp parts [that are] absorbed by the fig as a ripening agent,” Curtis says.

Still apprehensive? Not to worry. Both Curtis and Arnold point out that there are more than 900 species of figs, and those in WNC are unlikely to have any sort of unappetizing wasp entanglements. “Most of the figs in this area are self-pollinating, and most commercial brands are self-pollinating,” Arnold reassures. “Most people in this area grow either Celeste or Brown Turkey [figs], and those are self-pollinating and don’t require wasps.”

Whew. Now it’s time to hit the nearest tailgate market and grab some of those fresh inverted flowers.

Chef Hayette Bouras, food service manager at West Village Market and Deli and owner of the market’s soon-to-open Sunflower Diner, sources fresh figs from Anne Stafford at Spivey Mountain Produce in West Asheville, just a stone’s throw from the market. Bouras cooks with both dry and fresh figs at WVM, creating dishes both savory and sweet.

On the savory side, her go-to application is pairing with mild and soft cheeses. She also suggests chopping figs up with whatever other items might be on hand and mixing with spices to create a chutney. “We’re often trying to use up produce that might not be sellable but is still absolutely fine — we’re really trying to reduce our food waste here — and [a chutney] is a great application for that.”

For a sweet treat, Bouras, who is vegan, offers a recipe for a simple fig tart with coconut custard (see sidebar). “Figs to me have such a mild flavor, and it’s nice to highlight the taste of the fig without covering it up with too much else,” she says.

Downtown at Strada Italiano, chef and owner Anthony Cerrato has found success keeping figs on his menu since the days of his old restaurant, Fiore’s Ristorante Toscana, which closed in 2012. Dried Calimyrna figs are on Strada’s gluten-friendly menu year-round — with grilled duck breast and risotto; on pizza with goat cheese, prosciutto and basil; and in the restaurant’s popular Tuscan figs appetizer, in which they’re stuffed with local goat cheese and fresh basil, wrapped in prosciutto, flash-fried and drizzled with a chianti wine and rosemary reduction.

This time of year, one may also find fresh figs at Strada in salads, served in a pasta dish with goat cheese-pecorino cream or pickled. “I would use a white balsamic vinegar,” he says. “That would make it a little bit sweeter.”

He also favors putting fresh figs in a tart or cooking them into preserves or a sauce. “Macerate the figs with sugar and cook them in their own juice, then put them on top of a New York-style Philadelphia cheesecake,” he advises.

For both chefs, though, figs are more than just a culinary ingredient. “When I think about figs, I think about my mom,” says Bouras, reminiscing about late-summer snacks at her mother’s house in Gastonia. “She has huge fig trees in her yard, and my favorite way to eat a fig is that, just going to my mama’s house and picking them off the tree and eating them fresh.”

She also has fond memories of picking figs with her father, who is from Tunisia. “We would go visit his family there, and it’s on the Mediterranean, so there are figs all over his parents’ orchard.”

Cerrato, who is one of six siblings from an Italian American family, also finds in figs a taste of nostalgia. “I grew up in New Jersey, and my uncle Johnny always had a garden, and my grandmother did as well, so there’d always be figs on a ledge in the kitchen with tomatoes that were ripening,” he remembers. “I used to just eat them off the tree. When they’re warm from the sun, you can taste the sunshine. It’s just really great.”

Sunflower Diner opens inside the West Village Market and Deli at 771 Haywood Road, with a brunch celebration 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday Sept. 29. Regular hours will be 7:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Sundays starting Wednesday, Oct. 2. For details, look for “Sunflower Diner” on Facebook. For details on Strada Italiano, visit stradaasheville.com. 

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About Gina Smith
Gina Smith is the Mountain Xpress Food section editor and writer. She can be reached at gsmith@mountainx.com.

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