Foraging – Unripe Figs

Any city that had Mediterranean immigrants will be sprinkled with fig trees. We have loads of them in Vancouver, but what many people don’t realize is that almost all of them are the type that will remain green (or greenish-yellow) even when they are ripe and delicious. I’ve talked to many people who thought the local figs just never get ripe. When ripe, they do look different; they get big, bloated and squishy, and the insides will be juicy and purple-red.

Unfortunately, because of our climate, it is often the case that the weather just doesn’t cooperate enough for many of the figs to fully ripen. For years I’ve noticed trees filled with sad little unripe figs that never got the chance to reach their full potential. Such a waste.

But, lo! It turns out that in the Mediterranean they use the unripe figs for jam or cook them whole in syrup to make a ‘spoon sweet’ called sikalai gliko in Greek.

unripe figs in syrup - baby fig spoon dessertunripe figs in syrup - baby fig spoon dessert

So pretty! The black specks are from the vanilla pod.

I was skeptical but figured it was worth a try, especially since I had spotted a tree nearby that was dripping with unfulfilled figs. With most of the leaves fallen, they are extremely easy to spot and pick.

The finished product is truly delicious and easy to make. They have a nice firmness, yet a soft gooey middle with a tiny bit of crunch from the baby seeds. They are beautiful and translucent and taste figgy with a slight coffee caramel flavour. Ridiculously good for something usually left to rot on the tree!

Caution: the fig tree sap is a white latex, so if you’re allergic to latex you’re going to need to wear gloves (non-latex – duh) when picking and handling the raw figs. There will be a whole lotta latex in the kitchen, on your knife, you hands, your cutting board, and your pots after the first couple of steps. I’m not allergic to latex, but after doing a big batch, my finger tips were irritated. Next time I’ll wear gloves.

Unripe Figs in Syrup (aka Spoon Sweet) Recipe

My brief summary of the steps is listed here just for the sake of completeness, but I recommend going to the original recipe on the Mama’s Taverna website since she’s provided photos of each step.

Ingredients

2 pounds unripe figs
3 pounds sugar
3 cups water
lemon juice (a couple of tablespoons)
cloves and/or vanilla (I used 3 cloves, half a split vanilla pod)

The first few steps are intended to soak out the bitter latex and soften the fruits to prepare them for the syrup soaking. Timing considerations: the first water soak is a few hours and, near the end, they will sit in the syrup for 12 hours.

  1. Rinse the figs and poke a hole through their bellies with a thick nail, screwdriver or chopstick then put them in water and let them soak for a few hours. You’re trying to get rid of the bitter latex, so if the water is already white, dump it out and add fresh; I did this twice before leaving them to soak. Because the figs are very buoyant, I kept them submerged with a pie plate and a heavy pot, just because I wanted to show them who’s the boss.
  2. Next, boil the figs in fresh plain water for 15 minutes. You’ll need to stir them because they’re still super floaty at this point.A lid helps.
  3. When the 15 minutes are done, put the figs into cold water (keep changing it to speed it up), then when they’re cool, drain them.
  4. Dump the old water out of your pot, replace it with fresh water and repeat the sequence of bringing to a boil, boiling the figs for 15 minutes, putting them in cold water until they’re cool, and then draining them.
  5. Boil the 3 pounds of sugar with the 3 cups of water for about 5 minutes, then add the figs.
  6. Boil the figs in the syrup for 15 minutes, then turn the heat off.
  7. Leave the figs in the syrup for 12 hours. If possible, gently rearrange the figs half way through to ensure they all get saturated.
  8. Remove the figs from the syrup with a slotted spoon and set aside.
  9. Add the cloves and vanilla, and boil the syrup until it is thick.
  10. Add the lemon juice, put the figs back in and boil a few more minutes until the syrup is again well-thickened.
  11. Put into sterile jars, cover with hot syrup (1/2 inch headroom) and process in a boiling-water canner for 20 minutes. The original recipe just says to put in clean jars and store.

I followed the very clear steps in the recipe on the Mama’s Taverna website…with the following adjustments/notes:

  • Not really sure how many pounds of figs I had. Probably 2.5 pounds, which would explain why I ran out of syrup.
  • I used a chopstick to poke the hole in the figs and made a fresh cut on the stalk to let out more latex.
  • The figs I used were between 1 1/4 to 1 3/4 inches across and they turned out great.
  • I added a few small pieces of organic (unwaxed) lemon for the lemon oil and was rewarded with some candied lemon peel.
  • I added the spices (three cloves, half a vanilla pod split in half, and the lemon) to the syrup after taking the figs out to re-thicken it. I wanted to make sure the flavours had time to infuse into the syrup.
  • I couldn’t find my kitchen scale, so I used an estimate found online for converting the weight of granulated sugar to volume. 6 1/2 cups of granulated white sugar went into my syrup and the sweetness was perfect.
  • I gently squeezed as many figs as I could (approx nine) into 4 sterile 500ml jars, covered them with hot syrup and processed in a boiling-water canner for 20 minutes. I had six figs leftover that I just kept in the fridge and ate over the next few days, but all of the syrup was used up in the 4 jars that I canned. For more details on canning, check out the Bernardin website.
  • Wide mouth jars would be easier to fill.

With the leaves quickly dropping off of…well, everything, now is the perfect time to notice unripe figs and gather them for this scrumptious delight.

Urban Huntress Tip: Never leave home without a couple of plastic bags in your pocket!

Medicinal & Nutritional Notes

Figs are loaded with soluble fiber, so they’re great for keeping you “regular” as they have a gentle laxative effect. They are one of the highest plant sources of calcium and soluble dietary fiber and contain a long list of essential vitamins and minerals (phenols, B-vitamins, potassium, protein, etc.). The content of the minerals and vitamins is higher when the figs are fresh or dried, rather than cooked in syrup.

Their antioxidant and immunity effects have been studied and the latex is an excellent remedy for warts; just pick an unripe fig or leaf and dab the white sap directly onto the wart a couple times a day for 2 – 3 days (not recommended for those with strong latex allergies).

I’ve had personal success with using plant latex to kill a wart that a podiatrist failed to get rid of over the course of a year. I only applied the fresh latex two times (once a day for two days) and when I checked on it a week later, the wart was gone! I used the latex from Greater Celandine, rather than fig, but there’s lots of evidence to suggest that all plant latex is highly effective. So, try whatever fresh latex you can get your hands on.