How to make honey from figs
One of the things that I love about traditional Italian home cooking is how essential it is. There is a reason for everything, nothing is by accident. Food just makes sense here, and the more you see the changing landscapes and traditions of each individual region, the more you see why food and its traditions are so different from one part of the peninsula to the next.
I recently travelled to Puglia, which is pure heaven for a food enthusiast. A beautiful region covering the Southern ‘heel’ of the Italian boot, it has a hot, dry climate that reminded me of Australia. The iron-red coloured soil is rich and fertile and produces some of the most amazing fruit and vegetables you can find in the Mediterrean, but the landscape of Salento, the southernmost part of Puglia, is dominated by countless olive trees, prickly pears, scraggly primitivo vines and figs, which seem to grow from nothing, sprouting out of abandoned farmhouses or cracks in church walls.
One of the most memorable things that I ate in Salento was in the garden courtyard of A Casa Tu Martinu, a Slow Food restaurant “with rooms” (quite a handy thing if you’ve eaten and drunk a little too much; we actually stayed here for most of the week). As part of the antipasto, we were brought a bowl of vincotto and hot pittule, which are no more than simple, fluffy, deep fried balls of dough. Vincotto is a dark, sweet, almost balsamic-like syrup made from slow cooking grape must (the pressed, grapes one step before the fermentation of the wine making process), a condiment that dates back to the times of Ancient Rome.
This delightful little dish seemed to me, like many of the dishes from Salento, so ancient and so earthy. Not only was it simple and traditional, but it was practical. The dish uses up the over ripened native grapes that don’t make it to the wine making process. It’s also a condiment that keeps very well, which was handy for contadini pre-refrigerator and supermarket days. It replaced honey or sugar, which was not widely available and still is used as a sweetener for biscuits and pastries, but also is amazing with roasted meat, particularly game.
While researching the recipe there in Salento, I came across another equally ancient and related recipe for miele di fichi, fig honey, which is also made in Calabria. Fig honey is not so much honey as it is a honey-like syrup made from sun drenched figs. Its caramel colour and deep flavour is incredible and it can be used perfectly in place of honey or sugar as a sweetener. Again, it’s just a natural way to use up the surplus of over-ripe summer figs. This can be made with very mature fresh figs or even dried figs. Fig honey keeps well in sealed jars for years so it’s worthwhile making yourself a big batch of these as you will soon realise how insanely addictive it is.
The tried and true recipe I have for this comes from Grazia Galante, a woman who lives in the northern Gargano region of Puglia and is intent on tracking and recording the traditions of her area. The recipe list no more than “mature figs and water.” The directions tell you to boil the figs in water until reduced by half, then to put them into a clean, empty pillow case or stocking and tie it to a tree to drain the ‘honey’, to be collected in a bowl underneath. It’s just so charming that I would have perfectly followed the instructions if I had had a tree. Or a spare pillow case. But here is a description of how to make this in a modern kitchen:
Miele di Fichi
- Mature (or dried) figs
Although no measurements are given, I remember reading somewhere that 20 kg of mature figs should yield 1 litre of fig honey. Although this recipe traditionally is made with mature fresh figs, I have done it with dried figs and the result is still wonderful. Using dried figs, you will obviously get a smaller amount of fig honey but a somewhat richer flavour. It also tends to keep better than ‘honey’ made from fresh figs once opened.
Cut figs in half and place in a large pot with plenty of water to cover. Allow to simmer gently for a couple of hours or until the liquid is reduced by half. If you are using dried figs, you will need more water, so you may need to keep adding water until they are soft.
Take out the figs and place them in a cheesecloth (or a pillow case or stocking!) and carefully – as they will be boiling hot – take the corners of the cloth and tie them. Not having a tree, I hang it on my sink’s tap and place a large bowl underneath in the sink for this part. You can also simply use a very fine strainer, or line a wider strainer with cheesecloth and sit that over a bowl. Let the liquid in the figs seep out and collect in the bowl. When the figs have cooled, you can also squeeze the cloth to help it along until absolutely nothing else can be squeezed out.
Place this liquid back into the pot and bring to the boil. Allow to simmer again just until you have a dense, honey-like syrup and place this into clean, sterlised jars and seal them as you would a jam.
This is traditionally used in cookies such as cartellate, but think of all the wonderful uses for this. I imagine it could inspire and transform a beautiful, figgy semifreddo or tiramisu. I used it the other day to glaze roast pork. Possibly my favourite way to use fig honey, however is simply on plain yogurt, but sometimes I like to make a sort of indulgent breakfast crostone with this – fresh sheep’s milk ricotta on toasted bread, drizzled with fig honey. Heaven.