It was on one of those bone-chilling damp Florida January days when we found our old house back in 2001. The yard had been more than the previous owner could handle. All that was left was a mixture of brittle pasture grass and years of un-raked leaves from the neighbor’s massive oak hammock. The chain link fence running along the property line was covered in freeze hardy potato vines and half-dead azaleas.
And behind the garage by an old spigot was a dead tree, draped in Spanish moss and teaming with ants. I couldn’t wait to cut it down and get to planting something out of my dog-eared Southern Living landscaping book. That’s when I met Lois, our new next door neighbor and the source of all knowledge about our house since she had lived in it as a newlywed and beside it for the next 50 years.
She giggled like the former cheerleader she was when I told her that we needed to get that “dead” tree gone and explained to me that I might want to wait until summer to make that decision. She said to wait until we saw the figs.
Although I had grown up in Florida I had never noticed a fig tree before. Especially one like this. It sprawled its twisted gray branches up and over the garage roof providing a sanctuary for all kinds of fauna, including the ever-welcome cardinals and the ever-detested grove rats. Lois assured me that by late Spring it would be fully back to life and I would love it like no other.
Now we are in the middle of our 13th fig season and Lois was right. Twice a day I grab the colander and head out to fight off ants, search under the leaves and pick the most amazing fresh fruit. Lois taught me how to make her fig preserves by just putting the cut figs in a pot with some sugar. After they have softened, cover the figs with water, bring to a boil and then slowly simmer until they are as soft as you wish. Then eat them on any kind of cheese, or toast with butter or even over ice cream. I stick a few extra containers in the freezer for those sad Fall months when we are fig-less and nothing but a bagel topped with cream cheese and some juicy figs will hit the spot.
Never toss the extra fig “juice” from the preserves! Instead toss it in a pan along with some balsamic vinegar, olive oil and shallots to make a sauce for any kind of grilled or roasted pork. We are so fig crazy that we even use the “juice” to sweeten our tea.
There is the old Southern belief that it’s good luck to have a fig tree in your yard. Here, there isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t believe that.