This section is from the book "Meals Medicinal", by W. T. Fernie. Also available from Amazon: Meals Medicinal: With "Herbal Simples" Curative Foods From the Cook in Place of Drugs From the Chemist.
Only one kind of Fig comes to ripeness with us in England, so as to be supplied as fresh fruit: the great blue Fig, as large as a Catherine Pear. "It should be grown," said Gerarde, "under a hot wall, and eaten when newly gathered, with bread, pepper, and salt; or it is excellent in tarts." This fruit is soft, easily-digested, and corrective of strumous disease. Among the Greeks it formed part of the ordinary Spartan fare; and the Athenians forbade exportation of the best Figs. Informers who betrayed offenders against this restriction were called "Suko-phantai," or fig-discoverers, (now sycophants). Bacchus was thought to have derived his vigour, and his corpulency, from eating Figs in abundance, such as the Romans gave to professional wrestlers, and champions, for conferring bodily strength. The dried Figs of the shops afford no idea of the fresh fruit as enjoyed in Italy at breakfast, and which supplies a considerable quantity of grape sugar. In its green state this fruit secretes a milky, acrid juice, which will serve to destroy warts if applied to them externally; such juice becomes afterwards saccharine, and oily. In England the Fig tree flourishes best on our sea-coasts, because of the salt-laden atmosphere. Near Gosport, and at Worthing, there are orchards of Fig trees.
The famous Fig gardens at West Tarring, Worthing, are said to have originated with Thomas a Becket, and one particular tree is still pointed out as having been planted by his own hand. In the local Churchyard there is an epitaph on "the bodie of John Parson, buried March, 1736 ": -
"Youthe was hys age, Virginitie hys state, Learning hys love, Consumption hys fate".
On the Saturday preceding Palm Sunday, the market at Northampton is abundantly supplied with Figs, and more of the fruit is purchased at this time than throughout the rest of the year. Even charity children are regaled with Figs on the said Sunday in some parts of the country; whilst in Lancashire Fig pies made of dried Figs, with sugar, and treacle, are eaten in Lent.
Foreign Figs come to us as dried in the oven (the larvae within them of the cynips insect being thus destroyed), and compressed in small boxes. They consist in this state mainly of mucilage, sugar, and small seeds. As imported from Turkey they contain glucose (a sugar), starch, fat, pectose, gum, albumin, mineral matter, cellulose, and water. They exercise a gentle laxative effect when eaten; also, if split open and applied hot against gum-boils, or other similar suppurative gatherings, they will afford ease, and promote maturation of the abscess. The first Fig-poultice on record was that employed by King Hezekiah 260 years before Christ, as ordered by the Prophet Isaiah, to "take a lump of Figs, and lay it on the boil; and the King recovered." Likewise for glandular enlargements this fruit was of old renowned as a resolvent remedy: -
"Swine's evil, swellings, kernels, Figs by a plaster cure."- (1665).
When eaten raw, the dried Figs are apt to produce a passing soreness inside the mouth. Grocers prepare from the pulp of these foreign dried Figs (mixed, it may be, with honey) a jam known as "Fignine," which is wholesome, and will prevent costiveness if eaten at breakfast with brown bread. Again, the pulp of Turkey Figs is mucilaginous, and acts as a useful pectoral emollient for hard, dry coughs; it may therefore be well added to ptisans for such catarrhal troubles of the air passages. Figs cooked in milk make a good useful drink for costive invalids. Barley water boiled up with dried Figs (first split open), liquorice root, and stoned raisins, forms the "Compound decoction of Barley" prescribed by doctors as an admirable demulcent. In Cornwall raisins are called Figs, and "a thoompin' Figgy puddin"' is popular at Christmas. "Weight for weight," says Dr. Hutchison, "dried Figs are more nourishing than bread, and a pint of milk with six ounces of dried Figs will make a good meal." "Oh, excellent! I love long life better than Figs" (Antony and Cleopatra). Fifty years ago at the Hall table of Brasenose College, Oxford, was served "Herodotus pudding," a rich confection of Figs, and their accompaniments; and probably the same is still prepared there at the hands of a classical cook.
For Herodotus pudding, "take half a pound of bread-crumbs, half a pound of good Figs, six ounces of suet, six ounces of moist sugar, half a saltspoonful of salt, three eggs, and nutmeg to taste; mince the suet, and Figs, very finely; add the remaining ingredients, taking care that the eggs are well whisked; beat the mixture for a few minutes, put it into a buttered mould, tie it down with a floured cloth, and boil the pudding for five hours; serve with wine-sauce." To stew Turkey Figs, remove any stalks, or hard pieces from the fruit, prick the skins, and soak them overnight in enough water to cover them; then put them, and the water, into a small stewpan, and simmer very slowly for about twenty minutes. French plums, or prunes, may be stewed in the same way, adding a little sugar if liked. The juices of Figs and Prunes have peptonizing powers which will materially aid the digestion of milk, and cheese. Certain small birds known as "becca ficas," or Fig-eaters, are to be found plentifully on the Continent, and at times in this country during the summer and autumn, being said by Brillat Savarin "to fill and beautify (when cooked) all the digestive powers." "This bird cannot be eaten, it can only be chewed; and the consomme of choice flavours stored in its roasted carcase has to be sucked out." Such is the advice of the Canon Charcot, as quoted by a renowned physician.
For making a Fig pudding, "put three ounces of bread-crumbs in a basin; add Figs cut in small pieces, with a little sugar, or ' log maple sugar,' and a little grated lemon rind; mix with milk (and perhaps a little water); pour into a buttered basin, and steam for three hours." Fig tart is likewise a good old-fashioned dish, and useful as a gentle laxative: "Stew some good Figs in a little syrup sharpened with lemon-juice, and use them when cold, covering with a plain paste, as for an apple, or other fruit tart; or let the syrup boil until thick after the Figs are tender, and are removed from it; cut them in little pieces, and use them with some of the syrup for pies in patty pans, so that when baked they resemble mince-pies; they will suit the elders better than richer compounds containing suet. A small amount of grated apple may be added, with a little spice, and some lemon, or orange rind (candied), also perhaps chopped apple (about one-fourth the weight of the Figs)." An excellent gargle for sore throat may be concocted by boiling two ounces of split Turkey Figs for thirty minutes in half a pint of water, straining this when cool.
Towards assisting the laxative action of stewed Figs, or Prunes, against constipation, it is important to manage a proper position of the body as regards the bowels during sleep at night. Anatomical arrangements are to be borne in mind for this end, as to lying on the proper side at the proper time. Thus, for a while after the meal to lie on the right side is correct, so that the food undergoing digestion may pass presently out of the stomach into the first bowels, and gradually onwards, until after some hours it reaches the ascending colon, which passes up the right side of the abdomen. At this stage to turn over on to the left side will be of service, so that the faecal mass may slide along the transverse colon across the top of the abdomen into the descending colon, which runs down the left side, and so on into the rectum, or lowest bowel, for evacuation in the morning without any straining, or hindrance. When a relaxed condition of bowels prevails, then just the opposite tactics should be pursued.
If Figs, instead of being stewed, as anti-costive, are steeped overnight in cold, soft water, enough to cover them, and perhaps adding a few drops of fresh lemon-juice, they will be found nicer, and more efficacious for the purpose.
The fresh Fig does not fructify in this country, because no special wasps essential for such a function are available here. Caprification, or the fertilizing process, is artificially practised in South Italy for ensuring a good crop of Figs. A wild Fig, or Caprifig, which is inedible, is suspended upon the tree of the edible variety. This Caprifig contains a particular kind of wasp, which eats its way out in search of other Caprifigs wherein it may lay its eggs; but not finding any such wild Figs, it enters the flower of an edible Fig, taking in with itself some fertilizing pollen. A supply of these wasps is therefore essential to the Fig grower. "Do men gather grapes of thorns, or Figs of thistles?" is an instructive question propounded in Scripture, which would bear application to the wild Caprifig.