Italy’s Autumn Treasure: The Fascinating World of Figs
We celebrate the most quintessential of fall fruits
Italy is phenomenal in autumn. As the leaves turn golden and crimson and the air crisps up, the country transforms from a hot weather paradise to a haven for foliage, leisurely explorations and cosy mid-season foods. Among the latter comes a timeless Italian treasure: the fig. In the land of pizza, pasta, and gelato, these delectable fruits emerge in fact as the classic fall treat, offering a burst of sweetness and cultural significance that is woven into the culinary fabric of the nation.
In the Bel Paese, figs are a quintessential symbol of the transition to chillier days, representing the bountiful harvest that sustains families through the colder months. September and October are the perfect time to reap this little sweet gem, as the cooler days coax fig trees into heavy bearings.
Italians, it goes unsaid, have a deep-rooted connection with their land and its produce, and figs are no exception. As the days grow shorter and the temperature drops, figs take centre stage in the country’s kitchens, and their rich, honeyed flavour becomes a cherished part of the autumn diet.
Ready to dive into the delectable world of this small but mighty treat?
A Fig for Every Region
Italy’s culinary landscape is as diverse as its scenery, and the use of figs in the kitchen varies from region to region. From north to south, you’ll find these luscious fruits featured in a wide array of dishes, each reflecting local tastes and traditions.
In the north, where the climate is slightly cooler, figs are often paired with rich cheeses like gorgonzola or wrapped in speck, a smoked ham from the Alto Adige region. These savoury-sweet combinations create a delightful contrast that’s perfect for antipasti platters or appetisers.
Travel to central Italy, and you’ll find figs as staples in rustic dishes. Here, the fruit is stuffed with walnuts, drizzled with honey, roasted until caramelised, and often served alongside roast meats, providing a harmonious balance of flavours and textures. Even more tantalising? “Pizza e Fichi” a Roman fall classic that sees pizza bianca paired with the humble fruit. The marriage has even stirred its own saying, “mica pizza e fichi!” which means “it’s not nothing!” and combines two foods that used to represent the food of the poor to say something is worth more than it seems – another Lezione di Italiano for you!
Still more culinary ingeniousness is found in the south, probably the place where figs truly shine. Fig trees thrive in the warm Mediterranean climate, producing plump, juicy fruits, which are then celebrated in a variety of dishes.
One beloved southern specialty is “Fichi al Cioccolato,” or chocolate-covered figs: Delectable treats consisting of ripe figs stuffed with almonds or hazelnuts, dipped in dark chocolate, and left to harden into a sweet, crunchy shell. They are often enjoyed during celebrations and family gatherings, embodying the essence of Italian hospitality and indulgence. Another is the “Fico Secco Mandorlato di San Michele Salentino” – figs dried in Alto Salento, Puglia, then filled with whole almonds and natural flavourings, for a tasty, all-natural traditional dessert that gets its ingredients directly from the surrounding area.
Fig Traditions and Curiosities
Beyond their versatility, figs hold a special place in Italian culture, with plenty of traditions and curiosities rooted in the enduring allure of these autumn jewels.
Fig festivals are a common sight across the country from late summer and early fall, with lively celebrations bringing communities together to honour the fig harvest with music, dance, and, of course, an abundance of fig-themed dishes. The most famous of these festivals is the Festa della Fichi in Cosenza, Calabria, where locals gather to showcase their fig-growing skills and enjoy fig-based delicacies.
In Sicily, fig leaves play a role beyond bearing fruit, and are often used to wrap around cheeses such as ricotta or caciocavallo to preserve and enhance their flavours. This traditional method infuses a subtle earthiness into the cheese, making it uniquely Sicilian.
But figs have long been associated with superstitions and beliefs too. In southern Italy, it is believed that fig trees have protective qualities, and that planting a fig tree near your home will ward off the evil eye and bring good luck.
In Italy during the autumn months? Be sure to seek out the luscious figs that grace its tables. Whether enjoyed fresh, dried, roasted, or in delightful pizza combos, you’ll discover that these little fruits are a true symbol of the season – a testament to the rich tapestry of flavours and traditions that make Italy a gastronomic paradise.