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Food and Drink

Summer of Fruit Tarts--Figgissimo [by Barbara Hamby]

Cooked fig tart 1

The sauna of a Southern summer seems made for figs. When David Kirby and I bought our house, I discovered an old fig tree near the driveway and the vegetable garden. The woman who sold us our house told us her father had had a victory garden there during World War II. Does the fig tree date back to the forties? I wish I'd asked her. 

A fig tree is a glorious creature with large leaves that look like the palms of a giant. I've planted two more trees since we moved in. We had to have a pine tree in the front yard removed, and I'm going to plant another one where the pine was. Early in the fall fig trees begin to loose their leaves, but when they start to leaf out in the spring, their bare brown stems erupt with little rosettes of green, and I know that the figs are on their way.

This summer has been miraculous. I usually make two flats (12-jars per flat) of fig jam. This year I made 36 jars, and two fig tarts.

I'm wondering about the figginess of this summer. Could the drought during May followed by torrential downpours be the reason? Probably not, because this is a pretty typical late spring into early summer. I have to compete with the birds and squirrels for the figs. This year I got all St. Francis of Assisi and addressed the critters. "Brother and sister birds, you take the high figs and I'll take the low ones. Then we'll all live as one. Brother and sister squirrels, I know you're hungry, too. Please take all you want, but please don't take a bite and then go on to the next fig. Let's share the lusciousness."

It seemed to work. Fig jam is one of mother nature's true gifts. Bread, butter, and fig jam with a cup of coffee or tea makes an ambrosial breakfast. With a strong stinky cheese it goes well with an aperitivo. I haven't tried this yet, but I'm going to make a crostata marmalata, the Italian breakfast tart, with fig jam. 

Fig jam 1

I inherited David's mother's copper jam-making pot, and I cook up two or three batches of jam every summer. Our trees have small brown figs called Brown Turkey, that seem to me more concentrated in flavor than their larger cousins. In my mother-in-law's recipe for fig jam the only ingredients are figs, sugar, and lemons. The most complicated part of making fig jam is fig curation. The season is only a couple of weeks in July. It starts slowly and then builds up speed. On good days I pick a pound in the morning and another pound in the early evening. Every two days I have enough for a batch of jam. But figs are tender little orbs. You have to watch them or they'll turn into mush. 

Since I had so many figs this year, I had plenty for tarts. My first tart was beautiful, but the crust was a disappointment. That's because I tried a crust that wasn't Patricia Wells' crust. The second one was beautiful and balanced. The recipe is from her great book At Home in Provence, which won a James Beard award when it came out in 1996. I was at the Miami Book Fair and saw her demonstrate some of the recipes. The copy I bought is falling apart because I've tried so many of the recipes. The fig tart is a variation on the apricot almond tart. The only change I made was that I substituted orange flower water for the almond extract. This photo is of the halved figs without the cream filling.

Uncooked fig tart

I'm hoping to find some purple figs at the market later in the summer, and try the recipe with them. Here's the recipe again:

Next week: It's a Peach-luscious world

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
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