I used to think that spring is the season when Puglia is at its best. The air, though still slightly brisk from the last gasps of winter, is somehow sweeter. The sun feels warm on the skin. The fields host a riot of new growth with a hundred shades of green manifest in every new leaf and stalk. But now we’re moving from summer languor to autumn abundance. The markets are bursting with an end-of summer avalanche of tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, melons and sweet, plump pale green grapes. In terms of beauty, autumn in the Valle d’Itria is giving spring a run for its money. And then there are the figs.
At this time of year, fig trees dotted throughout the countryside here are almost doubled over with their bountiful loads. They drape conveniently over stone walls and into the streets, so we find it necessary to stop (repeatedly) on our bikes to sample them. The figs are hot from the sun and fairly bursting at the seams, revealing their deep scarlet flesh with almost no encouragement. If we manage, we bring them home in our bike panniers. We’ve also been madly harvesting figs from the trees that are scattered throughout our olive grove, discovering new strategies to prolong their useful lives well into the winter.
Since we are now drowning in figs, we thought we might learn more about them by visiting what is truly one of the most extraordinary local treasures anywhere. On a recent bike ride, we came upon I Giardini di Pomona, a conservatory just outside the Valle d’Itria town of Cisternino dedicated to preserving and propagating ancient and heirloom fruit trees with a particular focus on figs. Over three hundred types of figs. Figs with widely different flavor profiles, skin types, shapes, seasonality and provenance. Figs that make you feel as though you have arrived in the Garden of Eden and there aren’t any serpents anywhere.
The founders and hosts, Paolo Belloni and Martine Balanza, chose this site in the dead center of the Valle d’Itria over nine years ago to continue the botanical conservation work they started in Milan. They are committed to the promotion of biodiversity through the propagation of rare, often nearly extinct fruit tree varietals. They’re also deeply committed to education, offering school visits to their orchards to provide hands-on, experiential learning to new generations in the hope that these lessons get traction in a world that seems oddly bent on limiting our options by reducing biodiversity. Cuttings and starts of these hard-to-find varietals are for sale at the garden; you can also take home your new plants in beautiful terracotta pots Martine has commissioned from nearby pottery studios. And Paolo has produced an absolutely gorgeous book, Fichi di Puglia, focused exclusively on the role of figs in history, culinary culture and the botanical world.
We joined Paolo for a walk through his giardini (gardens) yesterday, trying desperately to create a taste memory for each new fig varietal we managed to eat. Since every successive fig tasted better than the one before it, we were hopeless at our task. As the sun slowly set in the early autumnal Mediterranean sky, we wandered through orchards interplanted with culinary and medicinal herbs and bordered by traditional Pugliese stone walls draped with the macchia Mediterranea (native Mediterranean flora) for which this region is known. The horizon was streaked with crimson and the breeze rustled the broad fig leaves against the trees’ gnarled trunks. The only sounds were the birds and a faraway tractor rattling through a field on its way back to the farmhouse.
We’re told that many of Puglia’s senior citizens think of figs as the visual representation of a poverty they’ve long left behind. After all, during the hungriest years of World War II to the even leaner post-war years, figs grew abundantly in the hills and valleys here. When there was precious little to eat, both freshly picked and sun-dried figs provided sweetness and calories all year long. Maybe that’s why Paolo and Martine’s work at the botanical conservatory, with its mission to increase varietal diversity using traditional, organic cultivation techniques, is not always well understood locally. Yet their impact is international, with ties to botanists all over the world. Their gardens represent the very best hope for local tourism that is sustainable, attracting new visitors to the Valle d’Itria year round who share their vision for a more humane future.
Make sure you include I Giardini di Pomona on your Puglia itinerary when you visit. And if it happens to coincide with the height of the fig harvest, consider yourself doubly blessed. If Puglia isn’t on your immediate travel horizon, why not try some of Paolo and Martine’s fig-based recipes from your own early autumn bounty? From the simplest fig “chips” to an especially satisfying fig and almond cake, you’ll be transported to the fig orchard the minute you take a bite.
For the fig chips, choose figs that aren’t especially mature. Wash them and cut them into slices from top (stem end) to bottom. Place them on a baking sheet that has been covered with parchment. Salt them with fleur de sel and dry them in an oven set at about 175 degrees Fahrenheit for 7-8 hours. They are ready when they are nice and crispy—delightful with an aperitivo during the late summer/early autumn sunset.
For the cake, use this recipe from the New York Times. You can substitute the butter with extra virgin olive (3 Tbsp. of olive oil instead of 4 Tbsp. of butter; grease the pan with olive oil, too).
You might also visit Domenica Marchetti’s blog for a terrific confettura di fichi (fig jam) recipe. Authentic and addictive in one fell swoop. Finally, Rachel Roddy, a particularly evocative food writer based in Rome, offers this recipe for a fig tart from London’s River Cafe. There’s no shortage of great things to do with figs. Or you could just eat them, one after another, like we do, ever grateful for the 300-plus varieties cultivated just down the road at I Giardini di Pomona.