Figs were of considerable importance in Ancient Roman culinary tradition As Cato remarked (De Agr. 144 (CLII) about the Roman housewife: “She must have a large store of dried pears, sorbs, figs, raisins, sorbs in must, preserved pears and grapes and quinces [...] and other fruits that are usually preserved, as well as wild fruits. All these she must store away diligently every year.”
The great deal of attention given to the conservation and drying of fruit in general, and particularly figs, was closely linked not only to the fact that the latter were widely and readily available, and were a staple in the diet of the least wealthy/more humble classes, but also because be easily used as condiments thanks to their high sugar content. Emperor Diocletian (243-313), in his decree regarding the pricing of foodstuffs, spoke of a dried fig paste as the cheapest product on the market. Once sun-dried and stem-free, the fruit would be ground and kneaded to form a paste and then combine it with fragrant herbs.
Divided into small portions, the paste was then rolled up in fig leaves, placed in sealed containers and left in a dry place. In Ancient Rome, the fig tree was of highly symbolic value and closely related to the origins of the city. It was thought that the founders of the empire, Romulus and Remus, had sought nourishment from the fruit which they came upon in their basket, having been abandoned on the banks of the Tiber before finding shelter beneath a fig tree. – affirms Rumina – in front of the Lupercal cave where, according to tradition, they were cared for by a wolf. A series of sacred figs were venerated in the city, the most famous of which grew in the Forum and was said to have been the direct representation of the Ficus Ruminalis, intimately linked to the life of the City. Pliny tells us that “when figs dry up, it is always a sign of foreboding, and priests should ensure that another one is planted”.
Given that figs were commonplace in Roman society and so widely grown locally, including in Etruria, the start of Roman expansion saw them being imported from provinces much further afield. The African fig of Carthage became famous, and, as Pliny tells us, was used by Cato to persuade Senators to destroy the city, a bitter enemy of Rome, during its expansionism in the Mediterranean, which triggered the beginning of the Third Punic War.
With the evolution of eating traditions and habits, the fig gradually lost its prestige as a staple food, so much so that in the following centuries the proverb “figs are of no match for a wedding” appeared, referring to a lunch with few courses and therefore not suited to an event of such importance. A fascinating story from the classical world linked to the fruit reminds us that Romans still enjoy it in two simple, traditional summer recipes: prosciutto with figs and prosciutto and fig pizza. Be aware that the prosciutto has to be savoury in order to bring out the sweetness of the fig and must be served at a relatively low temperature.
Recipe: prosciutto with figs and prosciutto and fig pizza ingredients serve 4 people
- ·8 figs, cut into 4 pieces
- ·2 slices of prosciutto per person
- ·4 pieces of ready-cooked pizza base
Peel the figs and divide them into 4 portions. Place them on wide plate and cover them with the seasoned slices of prosciutto. Serve cold. For the pizza: Simply unfold the dough, place the chopped figs inside, flattening them slightly, before covering them with the prosciutto. Close up the pizza and serve.