Figs were among the most used fruits in the ancient Mediterranean countries. There were many varieties; Pliny, in the Naturalis Historia, mentions 29 kinds. They were eaten dry or fresh, usually at the end of the dinner with sweets, fruit, cheese, and legumes.
In the books of the Roman agronomists, we find many methods to preserve figs, among which the one we are preparing today, selected from Columella’s De Re Rustica, an author who dedicates an entire book of his work to the many ways to keep vegetables, fruit, and other foods. As you will see, you will obtain a complex and excellent preserve, whose flavor will be completely different from common dry figs.
There are two variants of this recipe: the first is the one described below; in the second, the author suggests to fill with the fig paste a terracotta vessel and then bake it in the oven until it hardens. When you need to use the fig paste, break the vessel to extract it. You find further information about figs in ancient Rome on our Patreon page.
In this recipe, the figs are meant to be crushed with the feet, and Columella writes to wash them well before. It’s not surprising: ancient Romans were obsessed with cleanness. In the texts of the agronomists, in particular in De Agri Cultura by Cato, we find all the time the advice to clean well hands and mortar or, better, use a new mortar for the recipe, as well as new vessels to store the foods.
Below, you find the original text with our translation, the method, and the video of the recipe with subtitles in English and Italian. Enjoy!
spices (cumin, anise, fennel seeds)
Pick half-ripe figs, leaving them to dry for a day.
Roast for a short time the sesame seeds. Pound in the mortar the figs (or crush them with your feet, depending on how many figs you are using) until you obtain a homogeneous paste.
Grind in another mortar the spices and sesame seeds, then mix them well with the fig paste. Place a spoonful of paste in each leaf and wrap it. With our leaves, we used about two figs for each leaf. Let the wraps dry for about a week until they harden, then store them in a cool and dry place. The time needed to dry the figs depends on the temperature and humidity.
Quidam lectis ficis pediculos adimunt et in sole eas expandunt; cum deinde paulum siccatae sunt, antequam indurescant, in labra fictilia vel lapidea congerunt eas, tum pedibus lotis in modum farinae proculcant et admiscent torrefactam sesamam cum aneso Aegyptio et semine faeniculi et cymini. Haec cum bene proculcaverunt et totam massam comminutae fici permiscuerunt, modicas offas foliis ficulneis involvunt ac religatas iunco vel qualibet herba offas reponunt in crates et patiuntur siccari; deinde cum perarverunt, picatis vasis eas condunt.
Some people, once gathered the figs, remove the peduncles and spread them in the sun. When the figs are dried a little, before they turn hard, they place them in terracotta or stone basins, then they crush the figs with their clean feet in the same way as flour, and add roasted sesame, Egyptian anise, fennel, and cumin seeds. Once the ingredients are well mixed, they wrap little cakes [made with this paste] in fig leaves and tie them with reeds or the kind of herb they prefer, and place the cakes on lattices leaving them to dry. When the cakes are completely dry, they keep them into pitched vessels.
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