Seasonal Ingredient: Figs
It may be the earliest recorded mention of death from laughter - the Greek philosopher Chrysippus perished from the uncontrollable mirth induced after feeding his donkey wine and watching it try to eat some figs. More than 2,000 years later figs still bring joy to hedonists every summer, and modern chefs love to cook with them.
You would be hard pressed to find a fruit more significant than the fig. In fact, certain biblical scholars contend that the fig may have been the first fruit ever, the fruit of temptation in the Garden of Eden erroneously remembered as an apple, and it was the leaves of the fig tree with which the newly shamed first couple covered their nakedness. The spiritual significance of the fig does not end with Christianity. The fig tree is counted among the holy trees of Islam, and it is written that the Buddha first reached enlightenment while meditating under a sacred fig tree.
Holy and historical they may be, but for many what is most compelling about the fig is that it is delicious. The fig shines in both savoury and sweet dishes. It makes a popular breakfast served simply with a drizzle of honey, a lovely light brunch served with a bit of ham, a great lunchtime pizza, a decadent dinner when marinated in red wine and served with duck, and a perfect dessert as a fig pie or summer tart.
Alongside truffles and hairy crabs, figs are one of the great seasonal foods that have local foodies marking their calendars. This year, many Hong Kong restaurants are rolling out special fig dishes. Sheung Wan's popular 208 Duecento Otto is offering a special fig menu this month. Its centrepiece dish, pizza fichi - a pizza with figs, caramelised onion, goat's cheese, toasted pine nuts and dried cranberries - has developed a kind of cult following. According to 208's general manager Mattia Bruno, figs were an obvious choice for the Italian restaurant. "Figs are a Mediterranean fruit; succulent and very versatile - delicious in their natural state, cooked or dried. Figs are also beneficial for health. Our diners love them."
Chef Vittorio Lucariello, of Tosca in the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong, is also offering some special fig dishes this season. Born in southern Italy, the heart of fig country, Lucariello fondly remembers eating figs he would get from the market with ice cream.
Figs are prominent in many of the world's great culinary traditions especially in areas around the Mediterranean, where they are used both in sweet and savoury dishes. Today there is some disagreement between chefs as to where the best are sourced. Lucariello is patritotic and sources his from southern Italy, but at 208 they think they have found a superior fig from Turkey, a culinary superpower with a long love affair with the fruit.
These disagreements may be moot because, this year, Zen Organic Farm in the New Territories has produced a bumper crop, thanks to the green thumbs of owners Ng Ping-leung and his sister Joey Ng Pik-wan and the assistance of The Four Seasons hotel, which donated 300 fig trees as part of their corporate 10 Million Trees Campaign. Already, the Four Seasons supplements its significant fig needs with fruit from the farm. Other organic and locavore chefs and restaurateurs such as Todd Darling, CEO of Integrated Hospitality Management (Posto Pubblico, Linguini Fini, Homegrown Foods and Pizzeria Pubblico), have snapped up the organic figs. They insist the home-grown product compares favourably with that from the Mediterranean.
"When you get them in Hong Kong from Europe the flavour that comes to mind is tartness, they look beautiful but the flavours are lacking. The ones you get locally are as sweet as candy. We made home-made fig jam and we didn't have to add any sweetener," says Darling. Just keep them away from the donkeys.