Figs, I’ve noticed, are surprisingly polarising. You offer them to some people and they act like you’re presenting them with a bag of precious gems, loaded with memories of childhood and warm autumn sun and being perched in the middle of their grandfather’s fig tree. And then, there are people who look at you with the deepest suspicion, as if sizing you up to see if you are actually serious. They take a moment, looking at the prospect of eating some kind of poison, then reply an awkward ‘no thanks’ and try to change the subject.
Once, I tried to get my dad to eat a fig, and it was like trying to get a small child to eat lettuce. No matter what lines of reasoning I pursued, I had no chance. My mum too, while slightly more open to it, remembered some awful jam from her childhood that was full of seeds and put her off for life.
We acquired three green fig trees with our house when we bought it. Although we love figs, we thought one tree would keep us happy, so we cut two down in the name of a little more diversity. The tree is still young and we’ve kept it short so we can reach all the figs without a ladder. They ripen slowly and leisurely, in random flashes of crimson starting from the sunny front of the tree and slowly moving around to the shady back as the weeks go by. A ripe fig with a little nectar starting to drip from its hole at the base is like eating a spoonful of jam – but not sickly, just delicious. A burst of hot weather brings on a burst of ripe figs – and then the weather cools down again and you have a few rest days. You continue on like this, leap-frogging your way through the season, for well over a month and there is never an enormous glut.
Fig and quark (or cream cheese) strudel
This strudel was inspired by the figs from our tree, and also by some quark from Schulz Organic Dairy in Timboon that we had in the fridge. (I spied the tub at the market the other day and like an elderly lady next to me, I could not resist.) Quark is the true cottage cheese of Europe, with a soft texture like thick yoghurt. Also called fromage frais, it is used to make Frûche if you’ve ever been a fan of that (I used to love it!). Quark can be used wherever you might use mascarpone or cream cheese, although it is healthier with much less fat than both.
250 g quark or cream cheese
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons white sugar
450 g figs, thickly sliced
60 g butter, melted
6 filo pastry sheets
3 tablespoons almond meal
Put the quark or cream cheese in a bowl and stir in the egg, vanilla and 2 tablespoons of sugar. Taste and add more sugar if desired.
Mix the sliced figs with the remaining tablespoon of sugar.
Preheat the oven to 180°C and brush some of the butter over a long baking tray. Lay 1 sheet of filo pastry lengthwise on a work surface and paint it with butter. Top with another sheet of filo, and paint with more butter. Continue layering until you have used all the filo and most of the butter.
Sprinkle the pastry with the almond meal, leaving about 3 cm free at the side and bottom edges and about 8 cm free at the top. Spoon the quark mixture onto the pastry in a long line about 5 cm from the bottom edge without going all the way to the ends. Cover with the figs. Paint the top edge of pastry with butter and loosely roll the pastry up enclosing the filling. Fold up the ends of the strudel. Lift the strudel onto the tray and paint the top with more butter.
Bake in the oven for 30–40 minutes, until golden. Serve warm or at room temperature.