Did you know there are over 1,600 varieties of Figs in the world? That’s just one of the fun fig facts I learned while attending the Valley Fig Growers Road Trip last month!
It was a true “road trip” as a dozen bloggers from all over the West Coast shared cars and traveled to Fresno to learn all about how figs are grown and harvested! Figs are one of the earliest fruits ever cultivated by man. Currently, California produces 100% of our nation’s dried figs and 98% of fresh figs. Many of them from California’s San Joaquin Valley. That’s a lot of figs!
Our first stop was to Farmer Ken’s Fig Orchard, just outside Fresno. Farmer Ken is a third generation Fig Farmer who is still harvesting figs from trees planted by his grandfather in 1904. That’s well over 100 years ago!
Farmer Ken is 82 years young and his love for figs is evident! His family graciously postponed a portion of their harvesting for the day, just to show us how it was done. This was quite a sacrifice as the temperatures that day were well into the 100’s.
Figs are gorgeous trees and the fruit they produce is all harvested by hand. When I say “harvested by hand” I don’t mean they are picked off the tree. Figs are allowed to fully ripen and then dry on the tree. They are harvested off the ground when they fall off the tree.
Figs are carefully picked up from the ground and placed into buckets, then they are taken to be sorted and processed. It’s very labor intensive, as you can see!
Farmer Ken grows mostly Calimyrna Figs. We were fortunate enough to sample some of the fruit fresh from the harvest. You can eat them straight off the ground and they taste like the sweet, warm, chewy center of a fig newton bar, only 100000 times better! Fig trees and almond trees compete for their share of water resources in the San Joaquin Valley. Fig trees only require about 1/3 of the water as their nutty counterparts, so if you ask me, we should be planting more fig trees!
Something else Farmer Ken shared with us is how figs are pollinated. The majority of fig trees are self-pollinating. Calimyrna figs however are pollinated quite differently! In a strict botanical sense fig “fruits” are actually inside-out flower clusters called syconia. Calimyrna trees contain only female “flowers” and must be pollinated in order to ripen. This process is called Caprification, and involves a tiny little wasp (just two millimeters long) whose job it is to pollinate the fruit. The wasps gather pollen from male fig trees (called Caprifigs) and delivers them to the female trees through an opening in the bottom of the fruit. This allows the fruit to ripen into the figs we know and love!
After we said goodbye to Farmer Ken and his family, we were fortunate enough to take a tour of Forestiere Underground Gardens in Fresno. This stop was nothing like I expected. I imagined we’d see vegetables being grown in big caverns underground with florescent lighting or something along those lines. That is NOT what we found!
What we discovered was an underground resort, a subterranean complex if you will, of assorted patios, grottoes and garden courts, all featuring arches and stonework using the local hardpan sedimentary rock. Forestiere Gardens was built by a Sicilian immigrant in the early 1900’s. Baldassare Forestiere was a ditch digger and tunnel excavator in Boston before heading West to follow his dream of grow citrus trees. He purchased 80 acres of land in Fresno and then discovered just underneath the topsoil was a layer of hardpan. Thick sedimentary rock which would not allow the deep root penetration his precious citrus trees required. Instead of throwing in the towel, Baldassare got to work with his hand tools and began to create an underground haven from the heat, as well as creating a way to grow his trees and a variety of grapes, herbs and assorted other trees.
If you ever find yourself in Fresno, you have to visit the Forestiere Underground Gardens! It’s truly a remarkable story and a great tour!
Afternoon began to slide into evening and our Valley Fig Growers Road Trip wasn’t finished! We gathered together in the lobby of our hotel and were able to learn more about the wide variety of fresh and dried figs!
Gary Jue and Linda Cain from Valley Fig Growers were our gracious hosts for the weekend and they spoiled us with all kinds of tastings and more information about Figs!
It surprised me to learn that ounce-for-ounce figs have more potassium than bananas and that fig puree can make a great substitute for a portion of fat in baked goods. Figs keep pastries and treats fresher longer because figs naturally retain moisture. As if I needed a reason to bake more often with figs, right?
Valley Fig Growers really went all out to share with us! They are the largest handler of figs in North America and have been around since 1959. They produce Blue Ribbon Orchard Choice Figs and Sun-Maid Figs. Many of these products are available at your local grocery stores or online at: ValleyFig.Com I am a huge fan of their Figs and Spreads. Check out one of my favorite Fall Sandwiches, Fig, Pear and Gorgonzola Grilled Cheese or my Fig, Grape and Walnut Spread! If you want to know more fun fig facts, check out Valley Fig’s page: Fascinating Fig Facts
After our happy hour tastings, we headed off to the little town of Clovis for a fun, fig-filled, four-course meal (say that four times fast!) at Trelio Restaurant! Chef Chris and his team created a special menu just for us, which highlighted the many different ways you can enjoy California figs. Check out this menu!
Everything was fantastic! Or should I say “Fig-tastic?” Chef Chris even came out to chat with us about how he made the Fig Caramel in the chocolate cake (a huge hit with everyone!) and his methods for creating new recipes. It was a tremendous experience and I feel so fortunate to have been included in this opportunity!
After spending the night in Fresno, we were all in our cars and heading home again, with visions of figs still dancing in our heads! Honestly, I can hardly wait to get baking and creating some new fig recipes for you! My fellow Valley Fig Growers road-trippers will be sharing as well. You can find their delicious recipes and blogs here:
Maryanne from The Little Epicurean (My super-cool and talented car companion!)
Dorothy from Shockingly Delicious (My roommate!)
Jane from The Heritage Cook (My dear friend and navigator-in-crime!)
Sarah from Snixy Kitchen
Christine from Vermillion Roots
Debra from Bowl Me Over
Jess and Janette from Cooking with Janica
Linda from Brunch N Bites
Meghan from Fox and Briar
Kate from Hola Jalapeno
Aimee from Small Eats
We had fabulous sponsors on our Valley Fig Growers road trip! Huge thanks to them and their generosity in making this trip possible.
Please check out their social media channels:
Valley Fig Growers @valleyfig
Boursin Cheese @boursincheese
Dick Taylor Chocolate @dicktaylorchocolate
Figenza Fig Vodka @figenza
Underground Gardens @forestiereundergroundgardens
Trelio Restaurant @treliochris
Disclaimer: I was compensated for gas, hosted for our tours and my meals and hotel room were provided by Valley Fig Growers. I received no other compensation. All opinions expressed are 100% my own.