Fresh off the tree, dried, stuffed or baked, the fig is a classic fruit, ancient, in fact. The fig has been present from the Garden of Eden to the banquet tables of the Romans through to Christmas puddings of Merry Olde England. The Greeks most likely introduced this noble fruit to Southern Italy, where it quickly became a staple. Down in the toe of the peninsula, Calabrian figs are a must for the Christmas holidays. What makes them so special? I visited a family fig shop to find out.
One of the first plants cultivated by man, the fig predates domesticated wheat and legumes. Adam and Eve covered themselves with fig leaves after eating the forbidden fruit, which in some interpretations is a fig, not an apple. It has been said that Romulus and Remus were suckled by the she-wolf under the shade of a fig tree. Aristotle studied the plant, and Plato was a glutton for the dried fruit. Pliny sustained that eating figs made the young stronger, was good for old people’s health and lessened wrinkles. (Hmm… Do I eat them or rub them on my face?)
Together with the olive and grape, the fig was a sacred plant for the Romans. And Ovid recounted that it was traditional to give figs and honey to relatives and friends at the beginning of winter to wish them well for the new year.
Surprisingly, for the symbolic importance of the fig, Italy doesn’t rank in the world’s top ten countries with regard to quantity produced. Of course, quality is another story. While the fig is present throughout Italy, commercial production is mainly in Puglia, Campania, Calabria and Sicily.
CALABRIAN FIGS FROM COSENZA
In Calabria, the Fichi di Cosenza or Cosenza Figs have been officially designated with the Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP). The European Union assigns this Protected Designation of Origin status (PDO, in English) to guarantee and protect products of high quality from a specific area, and in this case, the Province of Cosenza.
The type of fig is known as the Dottato, and the tour de force in Calabria is the excellence of the fruit, particularly in dried form, and its transformation into gastronomic delicacies. The Calabrian fig is characterized by a rich, sweet pulp with tiny seeds. The Province of Cosenza produces 800 tons of dried figs a year, the largest amount in Italy. I had the opportunity to visit a producer of Calabrian figs and other local specialties when in the region this past fall.
FRATELLI MARANO IN AMANTEA
Wow! Stepping into the “Marano Brothers” shop on Via Garibaldi in Amantea was like taking a plunge into a vat of figs. Elegant boxes, bags and gift baskets lined the shelves, all hermetically sealed, of course. The intense fruit aroma emanated from the building itself and its back rooms, the laboratorio as the space where the fruit is handled would be called in Italian. Perhaps the workers got used to it, but I just wanted to close my eyes and slowly inhale that ambrosial fragrance.
I was warmly greeted by Davide Marano, one of the third generation of brothers in the business that dates from 1930. Fratelli Marano began with two brothers, Bartolomeo and Costantino, whose respective sons Rino and Silvio continued the operation. And today, Rino together with his three sons, Bartolomeo Davide, Daniele and Paulo, make up the company’s fratelli.
FATTO A MANO – HANDMADE
The words tradizionale and fatto a mano are thrown around a lot nowadays when describing Italian products. Going into the rooms behind the shop at Fratelli Marano gave a sense of just how traditional and handmade the specialty Calabrian figs were. It felt more like I was observing the preparations for a large family gathering or village event rather than those in a food factory. Any differences may have lain in larger piles of ingredients, stringent hairnets, weighing scales and industrial-grade surfaces.
Before the figs arrived at the laboratorio, they were plucked from trees growing on hillsides in the Province of Cosenza and sun-dried in the manner of the ancients, on latticework beds of intertwined cane. The process of drying the Calabrian figs can take five, six or even seven days, and the fruit is turned and monitored throughout that time, also taken indoors during the evenings depending on atmospheric conditions.
In the back rooms at Fratelli Marano, piles of dried figs, whitened by the Calabrian sun, patiently wait in containers and on worktables as local women fill them with the particular recipe of the day. On my visit, they were preparing single figs stuffed with almonds or walnuts and candied orange peel, placing the ingredients in the halved figs and then pressing them together with their hands.
Baking goes on in an adjacent room. The figs are cooked in a slow oven of about 130 degrees Celsius (266 Fahrenheit) for an hour and then cooled on racks. Pictured below are nocchette, two figs that are opened flat, stuffed and pressed together to make “bows,” as they are called.
The final steps take place in the packaging room, and in the case of simple coatings, the figs are gently tossed in sugar, cinnamon and or other seasoning, weighed and placed into boxes together with a design of Amantea’s old town and castle ruins high on the hill behind. The stuffed single figs are called bocconcini or morsels, quite a substantial little delicacy, if I do say so myself.
CALABRIAN FIGS – LE CROCETTE AND OTHER RECIPES
What’s better than one or two figs? Three? Maybe, but a popular configuration for Calabrian figs is the four-fig crocetta or cross. Two split figs are crossed open-faced, nuts and citrus are placed on top, then covered with two more divided figs, baked and finished with sugar, cinnamon and even a bit of bay for that old-world taste formulated by the Marano brothers three generations ago. The crocette calabresi or crocette di fichi calabresi are fine examples of Calabria’s wealth of prelibatezze or delicacies. Such characteristic specialties and their many variations have been passed down within families and amongst townsfolk.
One friend, for instance, gathers the fruit at its ripest, sundries it traditionally on a cane framework, fills the double figs with wild fennel seeds, spears them on two sticks before baking, and then preserves them in the refrigerator until the Christmas holidays. At the table, she serves them with nuts, and each family member or guest fills the fruit according to individual taste.
Commercial companies also produce the traditional non-stuffed, baked figs, packaged in many forms. Fratelli Marano stack them on myrtle branches and finish them with a cinnamon essence. When alternated between the fruit’s thin and wide sides, the figs appear as though braided and are called trecce in Italian. Circular configurations are called coroncine or wreaths. The pallone di fichi or ball of figs is an antique recipe with a rather interesting preparation in that the figs are initially boiled, creating a refined fig syrup. The fruit is then sundried and mixed with nuts, orange peel, cinnamon and the fig syrup. Then, several are pressed together in a ball, wrapped in fresh fig leaves and tied with raffia twine, to be opened and enjoyed as a sweet or served with wine, liquor and fine cheese.
CALABRIAN FIGS FOR THE MODERN PALATE
Right alongside the old-style offerings, Fratelli Marano and other Calabrian fig producers make a whole host of specialty fig products, such as dipped in various types of chocolate or stuffed with creams flavored with nuts, coffee and alcohol. Of course, Calabrians also incorporate the local pepperoncino, licorice and bergamot into their recipes.
On the day I visited, the laboratorio wasn’t dipping chocolate, but I saw someone putting a large tray of chocolate into a refrigerator in preparation for the covering of figs the following day. I assumed it was an employee, and then I realized that it was Rino, the father, whom I had met earlier when I first came into the shop. I found out that he was the chocolate expert in the family business, which embraces both homemade and hands-on.
To keep the enterprise viable, Fratelli Marano has put their know-how with chocolate and baking into use all year round, from candied fruit dipped in chocolate, to specialty chocolates, Easter eggs, panettoni (Christmas breads), colombe (Easter breads in shape of dove) and classic Calabrian pitta ‘mpigliata, a layered pastry filled with currants, nuts and honey. And for Christmas, there’s also a specialty panettone with figs.
Preserving figs to enjoy in colder months has been going on for thousands of years, and the dried fruit has also served as an excellent natural sweetener for recipes. What better way to celebrate the holidays than with this cherished fruit? In Calabria, figs are obligatory at Christmas tables, particularly those stuffed with nuts like the crocette.
Another Calabrian Christmas treat is the petrali, a half-moon shaped shortbread cookie filled with a mixture of dried figs, walnuts, almonds and orange zest, all soaked in cooked wine and coffee. And as evidenced by a favorite English Christmas carol, the fig was even featured on medieval Christmas tables in northern Europe, lest we forget, “Oh bring us some figgy pudding!”
For those worried about their waistlines, Davide Marano assured me that despite their incredibly sweet taste, figs are not as highly caloric as you might think and have many fewer calories than grapes, for example. So fortify yourself like an ancient and pop a couple of dried figs, a natural, gluten-free energy boost, vitamin rich with tons of fiber. If you have any left over, leave a few on a plate for Santa. (Or maybe just a couple of Fig Newtons that don’t seem to taste as good now as when you were a kid…) I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Contact Fratelli Marano on their Fichi Marano website. Other specialty foods of Calabria include the Incredible Bergamot, the Precious Diamante Citron and simply the Best Licorice. Sample them on one of my Calabria tours!
Interested in more of what there is to see and do in Calabria, the fascinating region in the toe of the Italian boot? Check out Calabria: The Other Italy, my non-fiction book about daily life, history, culture, art, food and society in this beautiful southern Italian region. More about Christmas in my book as well as on posts Away in the Manger in Italy, Images of Calabria at Christmas and Christmas Eve at St. Peter’s. Read about another Calabrian food often eaten at Christmastime, Le Frittole: The Pig Boil, Calabrian Style.
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CALABRIA: THE OTHER ITALY and my new book BASILICATA: AUTHENTIC ITALY make great gifts!