Figs are an oddity in the fruit tree world. If given the right conditions, they’ll produce fruit throughout the year. But what happens if that’s not the conditions you happen to live in? You get creative, that’s what.
I have lamented before about the summer heat here, and sadly it’s getting worse. For some of the plants I grow, this isn’t a problem. They aren’t as fussy as I am. Thankfully, my fruit trees seem to be unbothered so far. We’ve planned what we grow to have a fairly staggered harvest of summer-ripe fruits, with our figs and grapes coming in at the tail end of summer and into the beginning of fall. This sounds perfect, right? Well, almost.
The figs are funny in that a whole bunch will begin to ripen all at once towards the end of July and into the beginning of August. Then it will go into a lull and before you know it, the tree is absolutely covered in new fruits. The problem is that this coincides with the cooler temperatures of September and October. Figs don’t ripen in cooler temperatures. Do you see the problem here?
If we have a warmer stretch of temperatures in the fall, we just might get some of those baby figs to ripen enough to be eaten fresh. More often than not, though, we are left with a bunch of hard green lumps all over the tree. Never let it be said that a Greek villager will ever miss an opportunity to take advantage of even unripe fruit.
A traditional end-of-summer activity is to gather up those unripe fruits and turn them into a “spoon sweet” of some kind (read about these delicacies here!). Baby figs, pears, and even eggplant are gathered from the garden and slowly cooked in a spiced syrup to transform them from useless, hard lumps, into a delicately flavored dessert that would then be served to guests or with an afternoon cup of Greek coffee (in Greek the preserved figs are called “syko glyko” SEE-koh glee-KOH, or sweet fig) . The process is rather easy, and is a clear example of how frugality does not need to be associated exclusively with bland or boring when it comes to food.
Some quick notes before you begin:
For this process, you will need to have figs that are still firm. If they have begun to soften and ripen, they will not hold up during this process and will likely fall apart. I often wait until the leaves have begun to drop from the tree in order to allow the fruits to develop as much flavor as possible before picking to make these sweets.
Due to the bitter flavor of fig sap, it will be important to not skip the pricking and soaking process. This helps to remove that sap for a better end flavor.
Though it takes time to prepare these, the vast majority of it is hands off while you wait for the syrup to soak into the figs and to thicken.
The flavor will intensify as they sit in the syrup even after the process has been completed, so it is still worthwhile to be patient a little longer before enjoying these treats. If you can wait another week or two, you will notice a more pronounced fig flavor.
Commercially prepared figs will often be a funky green color. This is due to preservatives and colors that are used. They are not necessary to use. The final color of your figs will depend on what color they were when you picked them.
Traditional Greek Fig Spoon Sweet
For each pound of unripe figs use the following amounts:
- 2 3/4 cups water
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 1 cinnamon stick (about 3 inches long)
- 1-2 allspice berries
- 1 Tbsp. lemon juice
Trim the stems off the figs and poke them several times all around with a needle (obviously be careful!). Do one fig at time, rinse them well, then place them into a bowl filled with water. Allow the figs to soak while you prepare the remaining materials. This will allow sap to be leached out of the figs.
In a large pot put the sugar, water, spices, and lemon juice. Bring the mixture just to a boil then turn off the heat and cover. Drain the figs and rinse them before adding them to the hot syrup.
Bring the figs and syrup almost to a boil, then lower the heat to just maintain a simmer. Continue to cook the figs for 15 minutes at a simmer. Turn off the heat, cover the pot, and allow to sit for 24 hours. If the figs are floating, use a plate or lid to help submerge them into the syrup. Repeat this process of bringing the figs just to a boil, then simmering, and sitting for several days. Eventually the syrup should thicken and the figs will no longer float. You’ll want the syrup reduced by nearly half the original volume, measuring without the figs in it. If you don’t have time to do this process each day, you can place the pot in the refrigerator after it cools and resume later. It should be fine for 2-3 days in between each time.
At this point you have a couple of options on how you store your figs. You can keep them in the syrup and serve them as shown in the picture, or you can remove them from the syrup and allow to dry a little to have a dried sweet treat and use the syrup separately. Allow several days for them to dry, but don’t let them go too long or they will get too hard! The syrup is great for the usual pancakes, waffles, or a drizzle on some Greek yogurt!