My first intoxicating taste of a freshly picked fig took place in the formal garden at Villa Vignamaggio, in Tuscany. Frozen in Renaissance times, the setting had a surreal beauty to it, the kind you see in period pieces—like 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing, which was filmed at Vignamaggio. The villa’s owner, a lawyer from Rome, reached up into the tree, plucked a ripe fruit, and asked, “Would you like a fig?”
Following his example, I held the stem with my fingertips and bit into the flesh of the green-skinned bulb. I had grown up on Fig Newtons, with their chalky pastry wrapped around a too-sweet gummy filling, and I had sampled figs in fancy New York restaurants, usually with a bit of goat cheese and a balsamic-vinegar reduction. But the musk-and-honey flavor that filled my mouth at Vignamaggio made my eyes roll back in my head. I knew the experience could never be replicated. I feared no fig would ever taste as good.
Then I came to Charlottesville. And on a typically steamy summer day, I sat with my sister on the back porch of her house in Fifeville, drinking cold white wine in the hot air.
“Wanna go pick some figs?” she asked.
“Where, in Italy?” I replied.
“Nope,” she said. “Right up the street.”
I took the last swig from my glass, my sister grabbed a little wire basket, and within minutes we were gently pulling soft little orbs from the branches of a sprawling tree near the corner of Fifth and West Main streets. I looked around furtively, afraid that we’d be arrested. Even though the tree stood on the property of a shuttered restaurant, the angel on my shoulder told me we were trespassing and stealing.
“It’s okay,” she said. “Just pick.”
As I have discovered since then, fig trees thrive in Fifeville. The one near Fifth and Main became a popular community resource, but the owners of Little Star removed it last year because it was crowding their outdoor dining space (bummer). Walk along Fifth, Dice, Sixth, Sixth-and-a-Half, and Seventh streets, and you will see at least a dozen fig trees, tucked up against houses, looming by sidewalks, peeking over fence tops. Out of public view, in residents’ yards, even more figs grow. In mid-July most of the fruit is green, hard, and no bigger than your thumb. But as July stretches into August, the figs swell and ripen—the green skin showing a little purple—and the Fifeville fig harvest commences.
Devin Floyd, founder and director of Charlottesville’s Center for Urban Habitats, confirms that the fruit trees thrive in certain pockets of the city, including Fifeville and Belmont, where “marginally Mediterranean” growing conditions exist. This may be because of the sparse shade and sloping terrain, which drains well. “[Fig trees] need a dry and hot microclimate to do best,” Floyd wrote in an email. “I planted one in a south-facing lawn in Belmont. Ten years later, it is still kicking.”
Floyd is quick to point out that figs are a non-native species. Many sources cite California as the birthplace of the fig industry in America, but the fruit’s history there is rocky. In 1881, thousands of cuttings of the Smyrna variety were imported to the Golden State from Turkey. However, the trees bore no fruit until 1899, when the fig wasp, shipped in from the Middle East, performed the pollination that the Smyrna requires in order to produce.
Meanwhile, in Charlottesville, figs were already growing, thanks to—you guessed it—Thomas Jefferson. Touring the south of France in 1787, he wrote, “The most delicate figs known in Europe are those growing about this place.” Two years later, he received and planted 44 cuttings from France—including the Marseilles variety, which is the most common in Fifeville and does not require pollination by a wasp to bear fruit. Through sharing with local and out-of-state friends, Jefferson became the Johnny Apple Seed of figs.
Having collected about five pounds of fruit from the Fifth Street tree, my sister and I scurried home. She pulled a disc of Pillsbury pie dough from the refrigerator and set it on a cookie sheet. She smeared the dough with several tablespoons of apricot preserves (she said she sometimes uses lemon curd, instead), cut the figs into quarters, and arranged them in concentric circles atop the jam. After crimping the edges of the dough, she baked the galette (oh, so French!), and mouth-watering aromas wafted out of the kitchen.
The experience was unexpectedly moving. My body was in Fifeville, but my mind traveled to a villa in Tuscany.
Fig trees thrive in certain pockets of the city, including Fifeville and Belmont, where “marginally Mediterranean” growing conditions exist.
Through sharing with local and out-of-state friends, Jefferson became the Johnny Apple Seed of figs.