It is believed that the fig dates back more than 11,000 years and was the first crop cultivated by humans, a millennium before wheat or legumes. The fig appears throughout the Bible beginning with Adam and Eve, who used fig leaves to cover themselves; it is likely that the Forbidden Fruit was, in fact, a fig and not an apple.
Figs are intertwined in many ways with the history of Italy. They are part of the legend of the founding of Rome. When Romulus and Remus were placed in a basket and cast into the Tiber River, they survived when the basket came to rest… beneath a fig tree. Figs were a common food among the Romans. It is rumored that figs may have figured in the poisoning death of Rome’s first Emperor, Augustus, in 14 A.D. They have been regarded as a sacred symbol by many: Delicate, abundant, and edible, fig seeds signify universal understanding, unity and truth; their trees provide plentiful, bi-annual crops, which connote abundance.
Figs are grown throughout Italy, but they particularly thrive in the hot sun and soil of Calabria, Campania, Puglia e Sicily. There are many varieties, including the Dottato fig in the south (called Kadota in the United States), several Sicilian types (including the White, the Black and the Melanzana), the Tarantella from Puglia, the Triana fig from Tuscany, the Paradiso from Genoa that withstands low temperatures, and the Val Camonica that is grown in Lombardy and Piedmont. They range in color from white to yellow, green, purple, brown and black; almost all have red pulp.
The nutritional value of figs is quite impressive. They have the highest mineral, iron, magnesium, and fiber content of all common fruits, nuts or vegetables. Figs are 80% higher in potassium than bananas and are extremely easy to digest. With only about 20 to 40 calories per fig, it is often referred to as “nature’s most nearly perfect fruit.”
Figs are well integrated into Italian cuisine, from sweet to savory dishes. Fresh figs can be eaten plain and are often used for crostate (fruit tarts), dried figs are used in cookies, and overripe figs in jam. Figs are delicious on toasted bread with ricotta; topped with honey, goat cheese and walnuts; in a salad with prosciutto, mozzarella and basil; and at Christmas time with other dried fruit.
Figs also figure prominently in Italian expressions and idioms. Che fico/figo! (literally, what a fig!)is a modern expression that refers to someone or something as awesome. It’s like saying, “how cool”! But to say Non vale un fico secco (literally, not worth a dried fig) indicates that someone or something is worthless. Fare le nozze con i fichi secchi (literally, to have a wedding feast with dried figs) means to be stingy. Cogliere i fichi in vetta (literally, to collect figs at the top) refers to taking an unnecessary risk, like climbing a fig tree to pick fruit from the highest branches, which can break easily. There is even a proverb that degrades the poor fig: Fare come gli antichi, che tagliavano il fico per cogliere i fichi (literally, to do like the ancients who cut down the fig tree to pick the figs) which refers to doing something drastic in which the damage outweighs the gain. Given the abundance and versatility of figs, it is no wonder that its metaphors brighten the Italian language.