In season: figs

On Feb. 20, the nighttime temperature dipped down to 7 degrees. Susan Shaw and her husband Garry spent a hectic day and evening protecting what they could of their certified organic fruits and vegetables. “But when you have a 7-acre garden, you’re not thinking about your six young fig trees.”

Six young fig trees newly planted two years ago. Five survived. One did not.

The Shaws own Hickory Hill Farm, a Georgia Centennial Farm honored for being held in the same family for more than 100 years. The 204-acre property in Oglethorpe County was part of a land grant received in 1851. On the farm, the Shaws grow 7 acres of certified organic fruits and vegetables. They sell their produce on Saturday mornings at the Freedom Farmers Market at the Carter Center and the Athens farmers market.

Susan and Garry Shaw are the fifth generation to work the land. Their daughter and her husband, Jennifer and Josh Johns, are now the sixth generation to farm there.

The Shaws are not without figs since their in-laws have had a Brown Turkey fig growing in their yard for more than 50 years. The trees the Shaws planted came from sprouts from that one tree.

That 50-year-old tree is toughened by age and survived the cold. “Even this year my in-laws have more figs off that one tree than they know what to do with,” Susan Shaw said.

But those figs couldn’t go to the farmers markets with the Shaws since they don’t grow on the Shaw’s land.

“Last year we harvested a handful of figs. This year we have none,” she said. “But this winter we’ll protect those trees to make sure we have figs to sell. We’ll put baskets around them and mulch them heavily. My in-laws’ tree is against the house where it gets protection from the worst of the weather and gets the heat that radiates off the house. We may build some V-shaped walls on the east side of our trees to help radiate some of that afternoon heat, too.”

Fruit is a highly desired item at local markets, but it takes a lot of work. The Shaws grow strawberries and raspberries. “Those raspberries take up space in the garden all year,” Shaw said. “They bear for three weeks and it’s labor intensive to pick those berries. But we like to have fruit on our table (at the markets), so we keep working at it.”

Her mother-in-law, Alice Shaw, enjoys putting up jars of fig preserves. Sometimes she rolls fresh figs in granulated sugar and freezes them. Susan Shaw prefers her figs pickled in a mixture of pickling brine, sugar and balsamic vinegar.

The farm is building a certified kitchen, so those balsamic-pickled figs might make their way to the markets next year along with dried figs they process in the commercial dehydrator they’re considering.

Brown Turkey and Celeste are the two fig varieties most commonly grown in this area and are the ones you’re most likely to find at a farmers market. But there are dozens of varieties. At a grocery store, you may find Mission figs, an almost black variety that grows very large and has a tougher skin which makes it easier to ship. Green Kadota figs occasionally appear in the groceries as fresh figs, but most often they’re dried or canned.

Fresh figs are generally available July through September. When buying figs, look for plump, fragrant figs that feel heavy for their size. A perfectly ripe fig will have a slightly puckered skin.

Enjoy the figs right away. Once picked, they won’t keep long. Leave the figs at room temperature if you plan to eat them the same day, or store them in refrigerator for up to two days.

Arsie Mae Hardman’s Famous Fig Preserves

Hardman was the longtime housekeeper and friend of Ann Brewer who was one of the founders of the Morningside Farmers Market. She has shared this recipe widely. When asked if this recipe could be shared with AJC readers, Hardman said with a laugh, “Why not? Everyone has it anyway!” Hardman’s friend Maria Capolino added that the recipe had been published in a cookbook or two. “Nathalie Dupree? Scott Peacock? I cannot remember off the top of my head.”

This recipe is best made with figs that are just ripe and still firm. Softer figs will still be delicious, but they’ll break up as they cook.

This traditional Southern recipe calls for generally equal amounts of fruit and sugar and slowly prepared over five days. Don’t be daunted by the five days, each step in the process takes only minutes. To be shelf stable, it will need the full quantity of sugar. Only cut the sugar if you plan to store the preserves in the refrigerator and eat them within a month or two.

2 1/2 pounds fresh figs

10 cups cold water, divided

1/4 cup salt

5 cups granulated sugar

1 lemon, thinly sliced, seeds removed

First day: Wash figs and weigh. In a very large bowl or pot, combine 8 cups water and salt. Stir to dissolve salt, then add figs. Add more water if needed to completely cover figs. Use a clean plate to keep figs submerged and lightly cover the bowl. Leave overnight.

Second day: Remove figs from brine. Discard brine, rinse figs and drain. In a large saucepan, combine sugar and remaining 2 cups water. Bring to a boil and stir until sugar is dissolved. Add figs and lemon slices and return to a gentle boil. Cook for 15 minutes. Allow to cool in syrup, cover and let stand overnight.

Third day: Bring mixture to a boil and boil gently 15 minutes. Allow to cool in syrup, cover and let stand overnight.

Fourth day: Repeat of third day — bring mixture to a boil and boil gently 15 minutes. Allow to cool in syrup, cover and let stand overnight.

Last day: Fill a large stockpot or canner half full of water and bring to a simmer.

Wash 4 pint jars and screw bands in hot, soapy water; rinse with warm water. In a saucepan off heat, pour boiling water over 4 flat lids. Let lids stand in hot water until ready to use. Drain jars well before filling.

Bring fig mixture to a boil and boil gently 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and carefully ladle the hot preserves into your prepared jars. Wipe rims and threads. Cover with flat lids. Screw bands on tightly. Place jars on elevated rack in stockpot or canner. Water must cover jars by 1 to 2 inches. Add boiling water if needed. Cover and bring water to a gentle boil. Boil 10 minutes. Remove jars from water and place upright on a towel to cool completely. After jars cool, check seals by pressing middle of lid with finger. If lid springs back, lid is not sealed and refrigeration is necessary. Makes: 4 pints

Per 1/4-cup serving: 94 calories (percent of calories from fat, 1), trace protein, 23 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 67 milligrams sodium.

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