In early summer, unripe figs begin to fatten wherever fig trees grow. In my Brooklyn neighborhood I find it difficult to pass branches dancing with the vivid green figs without my mouth watering, and my fingers itching to pick. While firm and weeks away from being sweet, these green figs are perfect for preserves. In South Africa, my homeland, green fig preserve is a staple of roadside farm stalls and small-town shops that sell homemade goods and regional treats alongside hanepoot (Muscat grapes) in witblits (white lightning, a clear distilled liquor), quinces in syrup, and nastergal (black nightshade) jam. In their jars the small, unripe figs are translucent and firm, their flavor magically shot through with the heady perfume of fig leaves on a hot day.
Learn to make this delectable confection, and how to make the most of it.
Photos by Marie Viljoen
To be clear: Green fig preserve is made with completely unripe figs. They are soaked, boiled, steeped in syrup, and finally poached in it. The best way to eat them? For me, laid tenderly on a toasted slice of the brown, seedy bread that every shop in South Africa sells, with the butter just beginning to melt but maintaining its integrity towards the edges. But any toast will do.
In a quest to make my own preserves I dived deep into a collection of very old South African cookbooks and plundered a friend’s Cape Town tree. Twice. I drew initially on many sources, including Hilda Gerber’s Traditional Cookery of the Cape Malays (circa 1945), which was printed almost verbatim from an unpublished manuscript discovered in her belongings after she died in 1945. It is a unique record of Cape Malay cooking.
I also explored the poet and medical doctor C. Louis Leipoldt’s food writing, The Cape Times’ Old Times Recipes (1952), Dine van Zyl’s Value Book of Traditional South African Cooking (1985), and Household Cookery for South Africa, by Mary Higham (1923). The method I follow most closely follows Lesley Faull and Vida Heard’s recipe in Our Best Traditional Recipes (1975), but uses less sugar.
This year, I will make the preserves in Brooklyn. Because my cupboard is bare.
Traditionally, green fig preserves are made with a breba, or first, crop. Cape Town flower and fruit grower Malcolm Jaftha explained to me that the breba figs are known as voorvye—first figs—and that they are used exclusively for konfyt (Afrikaans for preserves). Those trees will then produce a second, main crop on new, green growth. This larger harvest is sweeter and better-tasting and the figs are known in the Cape as eetvye (eating figs), to be savored ripe and plump.
The South African tradition of preserving green figs and other fruits whole to make konfyt arrived at the southern tip of Africa with colonists, and most likely with the Dutch. The people they enslaved, and who cooked for them, were from Southeast Asia. The Dutch dominated world trade via the juggernaut, multi-national Dutch East India Company, whose spice-trading stronghold was in then-Batavia (Jakarta, Indonesia). At the foot of Africa, the Cape was the midpoint by sea between Holland and Batavia, which led to the establishment by the DEIC of a so-called refreshment station and trading post in the 17th century at what would later become Cape Town. This complex colonial legacy, linking and interweaving diverse cultures and foods, underpins the Cape Malay culinary heritage of South Africa, where preserves shine. The sugary fruit suggest a spoonsweet ancestry that is Mediterranean, Eastern European and Middle Eastern, all regions where the Dutch traded. But they also speak to whole, candied fruits served as sweets in Southeast and East Asia. The figs are heavy with history.
To make green fig preserve, collect small figs that have not even thought about ripening yet. (At the end of fig season you could pick the unripe figs that will not have time to soften, if frost threatens.)
Other cultures prize similar versions of green fig preserves: Cypriots, Greeks, Eastern Europeans, Ecuadorians and Brazilians each savor unripe figs cooked in syrup. Each cooking method is slightly different.
Preserved Green Figs
Some recipes might call for the addition of ginger, cinnamon, or even rosewater but I think that they veil the distinctive flavor of the unripe figs. I also use no additives to keep the figs’ color vivid. Muted green is fine, with me.
This method, common to most South African recipes, uses a four-step process that involves: Soaking in salt, a boil with baking soda, a soak in syrup, and then a gentle boiling in that syrup.
- 1 1/4 lbs green figs
- Water to cover
- 1 Tablespoon salt
- 3 quarts water
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 Tablespoon salt
- 6 cups (2.6 lbs) sugar
- 6 cups water
To Soak: Rinse the green figs and trim off their stems. Place them in a large bowl or bucket, add enough water to cover them, and 1 Tablespoon of salt. Stir well. Weigh down the figs with a large plate (they float) and soak for 12 hours, or overnight.
To Boil: Rinse the soaked figs. In a large pot combine the water with baking soda and salt. Stir. Add the figs and bring the water to a boil, uncovered (if covered it boils too fast and can ruin their texture). Cook at a gentle boil until a fig is just-tender when pierced with a skewer. The time this takes depends on the size of the figs. Be vigilant. Drain the figs in a colander.
To Soak in Syrup: Combine the water and sugar in a pot and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat. Add previously boiled figs. Soak overnight or for 12 hours.
To Boil in Syrup: Bring the syrup with figs slowly to a simmer over medium heat and cook, still at a simmer, never boiling, until the fruit is almost clear when sliced-through – about 3 hours. Allow to cool, and ladle the fruit and syrup into sterilized jars and seal. The figs keep indefinitely.
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