I didn’t grow up eating fresh figs. Figs were dried, wrinkly, overly sweet, like raisins but bigger. I always thought they looked like the shells of brown cockroaches. Part of the reason for my under-appreciation of figs is that they don’t transport well – and they weren’t a staple crop in the northeast where I grew up. It wasn’t until a trip to Paris two years ago that I had my first fig revelation. I call it a revelation, because it did indeed open my taste buds to the pleasure of the fruit, and also because the fig does have a divine history. After all, according to the Bible, Adam and Eve covered themselves with fig leaves. And Buddha is said to have found enlightenment under the bodhi (aka an old, sacred fig tree).
My enlightenment didn’t lead me towards the life of a great prophet or holy one, but it surely was divine. As much as I love the adventure of eating in as many places as humanly possibly, I’m also a creature of comfort. When I find a place that has everything I want: the right ambience, great food, the perfect, difficult balance of effortlessly tireless service, it’s hard to shake me.
In New York, I felt that way about a little Italian restaurant in Brooklyn Heights called Noodle Pudding. After three years In Seattle, I’m still finding my way; but Spur and La Medusa are coming close. In Paris, it was a tiny neighborhood restaurant in Montparnasse, the name of which I’m ashamed to admit, I don’t remember. But that’s the thing about Paris. You don’t pay much attention to the names. You just know that when you leave your hotel or apartment, you go straight, take a quick left, walk a few blocks and then maybe turn right and voila, there it is! If it’s summer or early fall and the windows are wide open, you’ll recognize the waitress or the hostess from across the street.
That’s how it was with this restaurant – the one where I ceased to be a fresh fig virgin. Since growing up and moving to New York, there had been a fig craze – but it always involved them being wrapped in prosciutto and served as finger foods at weddings.
These came on a plate, sliced open so you could see the pinkish flesh and the tiny seeds – a pink that I don’t think quite exists in my daughter’s pack of 500 crayons. Bordering on red, but not quite. It’s a dusky pink, more the color of bare lips. A touch of orange. It’s just the color of well, fig. Perfectly ripe, they’d been ever-so-slightly braised, so they were warm but hadn’t turned syrupy, soft or sweet. They were, in other words, still fresh fruit. Drizzled over them was some sort of sweet but alcohol-forward raspberry liqueur or eau de vie. And off to the side, a small poof of freshly-whipped cream. The convergence of these three ingredients moved me in that way that’s special to a great eating experience. You know it’s just food, not a major life-changing event and, yet…
Here in Seattle, it’s easy to get figs from California – and they do well in Washington state in late July, August and September – which is why I bought my first pack of them this week. Just like in Paris, I halved them and grilled them for a few minutes. But instead of getting out the Chambord, I mashed some fresh raspberries in a sieve, collected the pure, sweet juice and painted the plate with it. I whipped fresh cream, and served it on the side. I ate them as the sun still hung impossibly high at 8 p.m. While nothing can ever replicate a truly memorable dining experience in Paris, this came close enough for me.