I have sticky fingers. I can’t resist sneaking to the fridge for another taste of the syrupy figs and grapes gathered on the weekend. A friend has a fabulous orchard with several varieties of fig trees. One has ripening fruit in such abundance that she almost begged me to come and help myself. While we were picking her tiny pale golden figs, we noticed an adjacent tree where much larger figs were starting to turn a deep mauve colour. These, her husband declared, were the figs that tasted like his honey. He was so right.
Another friend has left some juicy black grapes on my doorstep. They’re the good old faithful Albany Surprise variety, and I placed them in a bowl with some tiny aromatic green muscat grapes I bought from local kids who’d set up a stall outside my house (50 cents a bunch!), so there’s a wonderful perfume wafting through the house. Regardless of the warm sunny weather outside, I know autumn has truly arrived.
Jane Grigson, the English cook who wrote several erudite food books about 40 years ago, noted figs and grapes along with olives and wheat provided the four basic foods of a Mediterranean diet until modern times. I can’t imagine anything better than to live on these four foods, so while figs and grapes are in season I am enjoying more than my share. Once the harvest is past, I will continue to indulge in the fruits of the vine, captured in an array of wines from around the country. And I will gladly cook with preserved and dried figs throughout the year.
Neither of these Mediterranean fruits is hardy, however. Figs, once ripe, are fragile and must be consumed within a day or two. The lovely thing about the fig tree is fruit grows in bunches that ripen one fig at a time, which means picking can take place over several weeks. Store ripened figs on paper towels in a sturdy plastic box in the refrigerator. Be sure to bring them back to room temperature, as they taste even sweeter when they’re slightly warm.
Grapes, unlike figs, can be bought year-round as they are often cultivated in hothouses. But hothouse bunches don’t compare to some of the lovely varieties of outdoor grapes we’re enjoying now, with their sweet fruity flavours and thin skins. Toss grapes with a few snips of tarragon into the gravy to accompany roast chicken, or serve them as the perfect accompaniment to cheese.
I split my figs in half through the stalk and add them to salads. Perhaps the perfect partner for a ripe fig is thinly sliced prosciutto, as the ham’s saltiness is a great counterpoint to the sweet fruit. If you have small figs, this recipe will make a lovely finger food to serve with drinks. Or choose a larger variety of fig and serve as a starter by popping the grilled figs on top of some fresh rocket or salad leaves moistened with vinaigrette.
- 12 large ripe figs, chilled
- ½ cup soft feta
- 2 tbsp cream
- freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tsp chopped thyme
- 12 pieces of thin streaky bacon thyme flowers to decorate OR
- 2 handfuls freshly washed and dried rocket or salad leaves
- 2 tbsp light vinaigrette
Pre-heat your oven grill. Cut a deep cross in the top of each fig. Beat the feta with the cream to soften, adding black pepper and thyme. Push a small spoonful of this mixture into each fig, then carefully wind with bacon. Secure with a toothpick. Place under the grill, turning once or twice until the bacon is crisp. Decorate with thyme fl owers and serve at once with drinks, or on rocket leaves with vinaigrette as a starter for six people.
Wine match: champagne.
MAKE THIS EASY DESSERT a couple of hours ahead so the flavours develop. Serve chilled in individual glass bowls.
VELVETY FIG DESSERT
- 125ml unsweetened plain yogurt
- 125ml lightly whipped cream
- 2 tbsp brandy
- 2 tbsp crème de cacao
- 12 large figs
- 6 tsp grated chocolate
- borage flowers or tiny mint sprigs
Carefully blend the yogurt, cream, brandy and crème de cacao together. Cut the figs into quarters, removing the top of the stem. Divide the figs equally between 6 small glass bowls. Cover the figs with the yogurt mixture, seal with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least two hours. To serve, scatter over chocolate and decorate with borage flowers or sprigs of fresh mint.
THIS TART WAS INSPIRED by a recipe from Margaret Fulton. Grapes tend to be juicy and cooking them makes for a runny custard interior. The tart would work equally well with ripe figs. It requires baking the pastry “blind” first, unlike my nectarine tart a few weeks back about which several readers emailed, worried that I may have missed out this step. Baking that tart blind was not necessary.
GRAPE TART WITH ALMOND AND LEMON FOR THE PASTRY CRUST
- 200g flour
- 150g cold butter, cut into cubes
- 4 tbsp cold water
Place the flour and butter in a food processor and pulse until the mixture resembles fine crumbs. Add the water and pulse a couple of times. Turn the pastry onto a floured bench and draw it together. After letting it rest for 30 minutes, roll the pastry out. Take a 20-22cm flan tin with a removable base and line with the pastry. Allow the pastry case to rest for a further 30 minutes. Pre-heat the oven to 180°C. Line the pastry case with crushed baking paper and fill with rice or baking beans. Bake for 15-20 minutes until pale golden and fi rm.
- 400g green seedless grapes
- 400g black or red seedless grapes
- 2 eggs
- 125g caster sugar
- 70g ground almonds
- 2 tbsp cream
Pre-heat the oven to 200°C. Wash and dry the grapes. Beat the eggs and sugar together in a bowl with an electric beater until the mixture is thick and pale. Fold in two-thirds of the almonds with the cream. Spread the remaining almonds over the pastry shell. Cover with the grapes and spoon over the almond and egg mixture. Bake for 10 minutes, reduce the oven temperature to 170°C and bake for a further 30-40 minutes, until the almond mixture is set. Cool a little before serving with whipped cream. Serves 6-8. Wine match: sweet muscat.