In the famous story about Antony and Cleopatra, on hearing of her lover’s death, the Egyptian queen resolved to follow him in a death fit for a royal. So she arranged for a basket of figs to be delivered, in which was hiding the asp whose poisonous bite was to kill her. But why figs?
The fruit figures in another story from an earlier Roman time. The orator Cato had long been thundering that Carthage must be destroyed. On one occasion, speaking in the Senate, he unfolded his toga and let drop several luscious figs onto the floor.
Cato let his fellow senators look greedily at the fruit. They would have known they were from “Libya”, north Africa, from where Rome imported a great deal of its figs. Cato then looked meaningfully at his colleagues, saying: “They are from Carthage.”
And having whetted their appetite for figs, he also made their appetite more keen for war. Figs were a benchmark of acquisitive conquest.
Nor was it just the Romans. Earlier, the Greeks would often mention just what it was that could tempt them. Some said it was figs, olives and pomegranates. For others it was figs and pears. The formulas differ, but figs are always an ingredient.
Figs were not just a fruit. The Romans fed them to pigs to change the flavour of pork and hams (Apicius also calls for pork to be served accompanied by figs), just as later, in France, geese were fed figs for the production of one kind of foie gras.
The Republic ended but the taste for figs did not. The philosopher-emperor, Marcus Aurelius, waxed about figs and bread. Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, is credited with saying that if there’s one fruit he’d like to see in paradise, it would be the fig. The fig: a measure of heaven.
His followers, the Arab Muslims conquering North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, would take the fig (just as they did citrus fruits) with them. The Christian Crusaders, barbaric and feared even by the eastern Christians the crusading knights were purportedly fighting for, acquired a taste for refinement in Jerusalem and other Levantine cities. One such taste was for figs.
Up until the resurgence of European power in the early modern period, the presence of the fig (and the olive) demarcated the zone of political and economic power – the Mediterrranean, including the Ottoman Empire. Figs marked the perimeter of flowering civilisation.
Some attempts were made to grow figs in northern Europe, including in England (where a fig tree is said to have been planted at Lambeth Palace some half a millennium ago). One expression for the devastations of climate we find in the archives is the lament: “Almost all the fig trees were destroyed”.
Figs were a measure of the destruction. To lose the trees was to lose not just a crop but an ideal way of life.
Later still, with the Spanish conquest of the Americas, the fig travelled too. Thomas Jefferson is said to have enjoyed the taste of figs in Europe, crediting those of France as being the best.
Thomas Jefferson is said to have enjoyed the taste of figs in Europe, crediting those of France as being the best
It was not until the early 20th century that the cultivation of figs really took off in the United States. It took a long time for American farmers to be persuaded that some varieties of figs need fig wasps to pollinate the ‘female’ trees. Wasps had to be imported from various places, including Algeria. Nowadays, in the southern US you can find a small, sweet black variety of figs called Malta.
And from the US, the fig
embarked on its own global conquest. It was successfully transplanted to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
But back to Cleopatra and Cato. Why figs? What’s so special about a fruit that grew in such abundance once the techniques were known?
It is because although figs were plentiful, they were also extremely perishable. In the wrong season, they could fall to the ground and rot before they ripened. Having been picked, they had to be eaten in a very short time. They could be at their best one day and be a messy jam the next.
The right time to eat a fig was a subject of much discussion. Some said the best time was immediately after picking it.
But what was certain was that having perfect figs was a measure of more than gastronomic savoir-faire. It also was a measure of wealth and connections: the ability to procure figs with perfect timing was complicated, and depended on a wide network of contacts, in a world where transportation was still slow.
So when Cleopatra reached for a basket of figs, as she held out her hand to death, her gesture captured the desire and love of luxury with which her fate had become entwined. Figs were a condensed symbol of a brief but intense love about to perish as well as linger in memory.
The milk of the unripe fig, the honey of the fullness of the fruit, the collapse when its time had passed: they were all there in her own passion and death.
And when Cato let the figs fall to the Senate floor, the ripeness and bruising of the fruit, the enticement and the sense of a fleeting moment that had to be grabbed... they were all there, too.
And we, this August, could ask a question or two ourselves. Seeking the fruit, being told once more that the crops are dwindling and the prices rising, because thousands of trees are being killed by parasites: what kind of life are figs measuring out for us?