Figs 101: Everything you need to know about growing, storing and picking the perfect fig
There’s nothing like a freshly picked fig, soft and flavourful after ripening on the branch. While fairly easy to grow, figs are a delicate fruit that need care when picking and transporting so you can enjoy their delicious softness in one piece.
Whether fresh or dried, figs are a sweet snack that conjure up images of the Mediterranean — and it is largely thanks to European and Middle Eastern migrants that Aussies can enjoy this small but mighty fruit.
Figlicious is run by Gebran Azzi, who grows figs in Glenorie, New South Wales. Azzi’s parents came to Australia as refugees, escaping the war in Lebanon. “My father and his brother brought in Lebanese cucumbers and started growing them, then they moved into tomatoes and capsicums,” says Azzi. He worked as a property valuer for a decade but when his parents retired, he decided to make use of the empty greenhouses. “I started researching a crop that wasn’t so labour intensive to grow and I picked figs,” he says. “There’s not much labour involved with figs — it’s just the picking but that’s easy. You prune them once a year and then you let them grow.” With produce from 1500 fig trees, Azzi sells at farmers’ markets and also at his roadside store in the Sydney suburb of Dural over the weekends.
Unlike fruits such as bananas, pears and avocados, figs do not ripen after being picked.
Over in the Adelaide Hills, Willa Wauchope is at the helm of Willabrand Figs, another family-run business. Taking over a remnant orchard at Glen Ewin Estate 22 years ago, Wauchope has around 12,000 trees sitting on 30 acres. Willabrand grows five main varieties of fig — Archipal, Deanna, Spanish Desert, Brown Turkey and Black Genoa.
“Black Genoa and Brown Turkey are the traditional figs that were grown in Australia,” says Wauchope. “There hasn’t really been a vast amount of activity and people seeking out or planting new varieties, mainly because there isn’t a demand for it in the market.”
Willabrand Figs is open for visitors to pick their own figs from mid-February to early April. While not an organic farm, they limit their use of sprays. “I want to be able to eat fruit straight off our trees,” says Wauchope.
The figs grow from late December for a short period (10 days) and then lie dormant for a month, resuming in February through to March/April. At Figlicious the fruit starts to get picked in January and this happens all the way to June or July.
Challenges in growing
Figs are not difficult to grow as the trees are hardy, however like all crops they do come with their challenges. “The rain rots the leaves and the fruit, which is why our figs are grown in greenhouse igloos to keep the heat up and the rain off them because they’re a Mediterranean fruit,” says Azzi.
“You have to get the pruning right and make sure the diseases don’t take over at the growing stage, but once you grow them and start picking them, they’re pretty much right,” he says. “It’s mostly just the fruit-setting stage where you have to be careful. You can’t over-water and you can’t under-water, and if the weather gets too hot you’ve got to provide shade so they don’t burn.”
“If you press it up by the stem and [the fig] is soft, that means it has actually ripened all the way through.”
At Glen Ewin, Wauchope’s biggest challenge for his fig trees is finding pickers who can work in the extreme Adelaide summers. In 2019, Adelaide became the hottest Australian capital city on record. “We’ve always had challenges finding pickers because if it gets to 40°C, people don’t like that very much and sometimes they walk off out of the orchard which is really hard,” says Willa. “So finding a reliable crew is really important and such a significant step.”
Buying when ripe
Unlike fruits such as bananas, pears and avocados, figs do not ripen after being picked. “You’ve got to make sure that the fig is ripe when you buy it,” says Azzi.
If you’ve eaten a fig freshly picked off a tree, you’ll be able to experience the heightened taste you’re unlikely to get from supermarkets. “You’re getting it right at its peak when it should be picked and eaten, when the sugar levels in the fruit develop to the greatest capacity,” says Azzi. “You’re getting a much more developed piece of fruit because it has had a chance to stay on the tree and develop a flavour.”
According to Wauchope, “It’s critical to actually pick figs when they’re ripe and eat them really quickly, but the commercial space doesn’t really allow for that.” He points out that the demands of the commercial market mean having to pick the fruit while it is still green.
If you’re unsure what to look for in a ripe fig, Wauchope says there’s a simple way to tell if a fig is ripe (that doesn’t involve squashing it). “You don’t have to look at the colour; all you have to do is feel the fruit up by the stem where the fruit was actually connected to the tree,” he says. “If you press it up by the stem and it is soft, that means it has actually ripened all the way through.”
You can also tell if a fig is not so fresh by smelling it. If it has a sour smell to it, that means fermentation has started so give it a miss.
Storing your figs
If you’ve ever tried to transport fresh figs back from the market, you’ll know the dismay of finding that the squashed fruit didn’t make the journey home. However, this is a sign of a good fig, says Azzi. Handle this delicate fruit carefully as they are easily damaged and bruised (or completely smashed).
Store your figs in the coldest part of your fridge.
In the past, Willabrand Figs sold its figs into restaurants and independent supermarkets, however it faced the challenge of safely transporting its produce. “Because the fruit is so perishable and bruises easily, it’s incredibly difficult to transport,” says Willa. “When you pick it you take such care in packing it, essentially nurturing every single piece of fruit so it doesn’t get bruised, but then it bumps along the road to its destination. It can do some damage which is incredibly frustrating,” he says.
To get them home in one piece, you can wrap each fig in paper towel and place in a container or use an egg carton to keep them separate. Once home, store your figs in the coldest part of your fridge, preferably in a plastic bag. Figs produce ethylene gas (as do bananas, peaches and melons, to name a few) so store them away from other fruit and veggies so they don’t ruin your other produce.