Califonia Bountiful

An ancient fruit rediscovered

July/August 2019 California Bountiful magazine

Figs are back in a big way—and one old variety makes new waves

Chef Ian Cookson serves Tiger fig flatbread at The Vineyard restaurant in Madera. Tiger figs are prized for their striking appearance and flavor. Photo: © 2019 Tomas Ovalle

Eating a fresh fig evokes a primal pleasure unlike any other fruit. There's something decadent and deeply satisfying about sinking your teeth into the jammy flesh of a ripe fig. Savoring fresh figs is an ancient rite; recent findings suggest figs were the first crop ever domesticated, a thousand years before wheat. Some Biblical scholars propose them as Eve's forbidden fruit.

But because they are delicate, highly perishable and also excellent dried, modern Americans have for years been most familiar with fig flavor in the form of the classic cookie, the Fig Newton. Many people have never tasted a fresh fig.

That's changing. Improvements in packaging and distribution, a lengthened growing season and the rise of "foodie" culture have combined to put fresh figs in the hands of more people for the first time. Demand for the fruit has increased dramatically in recent years, and one newer variety in particular is developing an avid following.

Cookson says he's a fan of the Tiger fig's bright, berry-like flavor and notable sweetness. Photo: © 2019 Tomas Ovalle

Enter the Tiger

When local figs begin to ripen in mid-May or early June, regulars at The Vineyard restaurant in Madera know they'll find them on the menu. Customers clamor for figs on flatbread with ricotta and honey, atop cavatappi pasta with heritage-breed Mangalitsa pork, or wrapped in pork jowl bacon and flash-fried, then filled with whipped goat cheese.

"It's a really versatile ingredient to work with," said Executive Chef Ian Cookson. "It doesn't just add sweetness; it adds all these other components that come out when you pair it with something on the savory side."

The Vineyard restaurant is located in the heart of fig-growing country in California, which supplies 100% of the nation's crop. Throughout the season, Cookson receives weekly deliveries of fresh figs straight from farms only a few miles away.

Cookson's favorite fig to work with is the Tiger fig, a variety known for its striped, yellow-green skin and raspberry-colored interior. He's a fan of its bright, berry-like flavor and notable sweetness.

"When you get a perfect Tiger fig, you almost don't want to do anything to it," Cookson said. "When they come in, I grab for that one to eat raw first."

The Tiger fig, also called tiger stripe, panache, Panachée or candy stripe, is a variety that's new to commercial fig growing in California, but is actually quite old. The heirloom variety was growing in France as far back as the 17th century. It was virtually unknown here until one farmer's fateful taste of the fruit helped put it on the map.

Kevin Herman, by his own estimation owner of the world's largest fig farm, inspects a Tiger fig on the tree. Photo: © 2019 Tomas Ovalle

'Really striking piece of fruit'

Kevin Herman farms 4,000 acres of figs in Madera, Fresno and Merced counties, which makes him the world's largest fig grower, according to his calculations. His Specialty Crop Co. also grows pistachios, almonds, walnuts, kiwifruit, persimmons and pomegranates. He commands the majority of the acreage devoted to Tiger figs, though he stumbled upon the variety quite by accident.

Herman first tasted Tigers on a trip to Wolfskill Experimental Orchards at the University of California, Davis, about 13 years ago. Wolfskill houses a U.S. Department of Agriculture National Clonal Germplasm Repository, a kind of living museum of grapes plus fruit and nut trees. The collection's curator raved about the Tiger fig's flavor and popularity with taste-testers. The variety had been sitting in the collection for about 15 years, and the scientist couldn't understand why most fig growers in California weren't bothering with them.

"No one was paying attention to them," Herman said. "They were under everybody's nose, mine included."

Only a few farmers had planted them on a smaller scale, mainly for sale at local farmers markets, Herman said. He decided to experiment with planting the Tiger on a larger scale, starting with about 100 cuttings from the Wolfskill specimen.

"I propagated those and I just pruned them back real hard for two or three years so I could make more, more and more cuttings," Herman said. "And here we are 10 years later and now we're up to 180 acres of them."

Farm employee Maria Sanchez Brown packs fresh Tiger figs in the orchard during harvest. Photo: © 2019 Tomas Ovalle

The fig was an instant success on the market, driven both by its novelty and limited supply, especially in the first few years of production. The Tiger fig has a lower yield than other varieties, making them more expensive to grow, which translates to a higher price for customers. Herman at first concentrated on selling the figs to specialty produce distributors and fine-dining establishments.

"The high-end restaurants want stuff that's unique," he said. "This is a really striking piece of fruit to put on a plate."

As his production has increased, he's been able to provide the fruit to national supermarket chains as well. Herman's college-age daughter sells figs at local farmers markets, where customers ask for Tigers by name week after week until the variety's season begins in mid-July.

"They just want more and more and more," Herman said. "If people have had them, they're genuinely excited about them because of the uniqueness of the fruit."

The interest in Tiger figs is part of a larger shift in the market for figs during the last decade, Herman said. It used to be only 10% of his fig sales came from fresh-market fruit, with most of the harvest going to processing. Today, 50% of his sales come from fresh figs.

"We've got some really good, large customers and it's amazing how much fruit they're taking," he said. "Figs have become the new go-to fruit."

Cookson wraps Tiger figs with bacon, then flash-fries them and fills them with whipped goat cheese to create a popular appetizer on the menu of The Vineyard restaurant. Photo: © 2019 Tomas Ovalle

Black Missions hold top spot

Karla Stockli, CEO of the California Fig Advisory Board, said home cooks have followed the example set by celebrity chefs using figs, and have become more adventurous in general, seeking out less-familiar ingredients.

"It's almost like a renaissance with the explosion of the fresh (fig) industry," she said.

A greater window of availability and showing retailers how to extend shelf life has helped cement fresh fig sales as well, Herman said.

"A lot of grocery stores were reluctant to stock them because they only were available for three or four weeks," he said. "We've done some things with different varieties and growing techniques and growing them in different areas now, where we've got figs pretty much available from June 1 to Nov. 1."

Despite the success of the Tiger fig, Herman's main variety remains the Black Mission fig, which is about half his crop. He also farms Brown Turkey and Sierra figs, which are, like Black Missions and Tigers, primarily for the fresh market, as well as Kadota and Conadria for processing.

Although the variety is becoming more popular, there hasn't been a rush on the part of other farmers to plant Tigers, due to the challenges of growing them, Herman said. Most new fig trees going into orchards are the ever-popular, tried-and-true Missions, Stockli said.

But Herman likes experimenting. He's already got his eye on a new fig variety, a black, tiger-striped variety with blood-red interior from Spain he said is planted to a very limited degree in California—for now.

"Ag doesn't sit still for long," Herman said. "We can't afford to."

Shannon Springmeyer

California's fresh fig season starts in mid-May and continues through mid-December. Farmers here grow six primary varieties. Photo courtesy of California Fig Advisory Board

Figs of many flavors

Each variety of California fig offers its own unique flavor profile and characteristics, much like the differences among California's many wine varietals. Try them all!

1. Calimyrna

  • Pale yellow skin
  • Enjoy fresh or dried
  • Buttery and nutty. Think: chardonnay
  • In season July to August

4. Black Mission

  • Purple and black skin
  • Enjoy fresh or dried
  • Deep, earthy flavor. Think: cabernet
  • In season mid-May to November

2. Brown Turkey

  • Light purple to black skin
  • Best eaten fresh
  • Robust flavor. Think: pinot noir
  • In season mid-May to December

5. Sierra

  • Light yellow-green skin
  • Enjoy fresh or dried
  • Sweet, mild and creamy. Think: riesling
  • In season June to November

3. Kadota

  • Creamy amber skin
  • Enjoy fresh or dried
  • Light flavor. Think: sauvignon blanc
  • In season mid-June to October

6. Tiger

  • Light yellow with dark green stripes
  • Best eaten fresh
  • Sweet, raspberry, citrus flavor. Think: rosé
  • In season mid-July to November

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