The Fig

The fig has a rich history dating back thousands of years. Originating in the Middle East, specifically in southern Arabia (Yemen) and then migrated to ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), the fig tree (Ficus carica) was one of the first plants to be cultivated by humans. The false inflorescense fruit of the fig tree has been a staple food in various civilizations throughout history.

Ancient civilizations such as the Sumerians and Egyptians revered the fig for its nutritional value and its sweet taste. Figs were often considered a symbol of abundance and fertility. As trade and exploration expanded, figs spread to regions like Greece and Rome, becoming an essential part of their diets.

The fig’s significance goes beyond just its culinary use. It also holds cultural and religious importance in various societies. In Greek mythology, the fig was associated with Dionysus, the god of wine and festivities. Additionally, in ancient Rome, figs were used as offerings during religious ceremonies.

The dissemination of the fig in Medieval Europe came via the Muslim conquest of the Iberian peninsula, where fig production took on a large scale and became a food of high status. Returning crusaders from the ‘holy land’ were responsible for the encounters with the valued fruit in Northern Europe.

With the encroachment of Europeans and subsequent colonization, figs were introduced to new parts of the world. Spanish missionaries were among the first to bring figs to the Americas (Abya Yala), where the fruit quickly became integrated into local cuisines.

Today, figs are widely cultivated in various regions with a subtropical climate. They are, as in the past, enjoyed fresh, dried, and used in a wide variety of dishes.

The fig’s enduring popularity and long history of cultivation are a testament to its resilience and significance in human culture and cuisine, making it a beloved fruit with a story that spans millennia.


Further reading:
Button – Figs: A Global History (edible series, 2014)
Shanahan – Ladders to Heaven: the secret history of fig trees, 2016