Plump, soft and delectable, figs have grown around the Mediterranean for 10,000 years. Their honeyed, perfumed flavour combines beautifully with almost all the other ingredients to be found in southern Europe.
When buying, look for figs that are heavy for their size, without bruises or blemishes and which, when lightly squeezed, give slightly. They make almost perfect jam, which can be stored through the winter, so that this burst of summer can be enjoyed even when the weather has turned.
The classic combination of figs with Parma ham is hard to beat, but try baking them into galettes or serve them with lightly whipped cream with a little raspberry purée stirred through. At Petersham, we also poach dried figs in red wine, which pair perfectly with goat's or sheep's milk cheeses.
To prepare figs for eating, run gently under cool water, pat dry and remove the top stem, where they have been attached to the tree. They are easy to peel, but I think the skin is an integral part of the fruit and, unless particularly tough, I eat them with the skin on. Enjoy them fresh now, for they will soon be gone and only if we are lucky will we see them for a second, brief moment in the autumn.
Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627, www.petershamnurseries.com
Leg of lamb with figs and anchoïade
Anchoïade is a rough-pounded paste that hails from the South of France, consisting of little more than a handful of anchovies, walnuts, garlic and olive oil. It is best made just before serving in order that its flavour remains pure.
1 small leg of lamb
A little olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
A bunch of lemon thyme
12 ripe figs
For the anchoïade
2 cloves of garlic
24 fresh walnuts
1 small bunch of flat-leaf parsley
A squeeze of lemon juice
80ml/3fl oz olive oil
Heat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas6. Rub the lamb with the olive oil, season generously with the salt and pepper, place in a roasting tin and scatter over the thyme, cover loosely with foil and place on the middle shelf of the hot oven. Cook for 45 minutes then remove the foil and continue to cook for a further 45 minutes. Now remove the lamb from the oven; it should be gloriously brown and tender to the touch. Rest in a warm place while you make the anchoïade.
Pound the anchovies, garlic and walnuts to a rough paste with a pestle and mortar. Roughly chop the parsley and stir into the paste, squeeze over the lemon juice and stir in the olive oil.
Once the meat has rested for 10 minutes or so, carve into generous slices, arrange on to six plates, tear over the ripe figs and spoon over the anchoïade. Serve with nothing more than a simple green salad comprising of slightly bitter leaves such as chicory and rocket.
Salad of Parma ham, figs, tomatoes, dates and basil
This salad is simple and light, comprising ripe, sweet, summer dates pinned down with the slightly salty flavour of the Parma ham. Heritage tomatoes are not difficult to find these days and the basil here I have seemed to grow very easily this year in my garden at home. You don't have to use either these tomatoes or the basil – but do make sure the ingredients are ripe.
3 ripe tomatoes, sliced
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
The zest of one lemon
60ml/21/2fl oz light extra-virgin olive oil
4 ripe figs, torn
11/2 tbsp aged balsamic vinegar
8 very fine slices of Parma ham
2 Medjool dates, deseeded, finely chopped
16 leaves of basil
1 tbsp grated Parmesan
Start by seasoning the tomatoes with salt and pepper, sprinkle over the lemon zest and a little olive oil. Now tear the figs and season them with some black pepper and a drizzle or two of balsamic. Arrange the Parma ham, figs and tomatoes on four plates, layering slightly so the flavours mingle together. Gently pour over the rest of the olive oil, drizzle over the remaining vinegar and scatter the dates, basil and grated Parmesan to finish. Serve at once while all the flavours are still vibrant.
Figs with warm honey
Perfectly ripe figs served on their own without any adornment make for a simple and beautiful dessert. But if you feel you are in need of something slightly richer, try this: it is just as lovely.
8 ripe figs
2 tbsp acacia honey
2 tbsp water
2 sprigs of thyme
Heat your oven to 180C/350F/Gas4. Now tear the figs roughly and unevenly and place into a roasting tray. Once the oven is hot, place the tray on the middle shelf and roast for 8-10 minutes, or until the figs have slightly puffed up and their juice has begun to ooze. While the figs are cooking, place the honey and water into a small saucepan along with the thyme. Place over a low heat and stir until the honey has melted. Now remove the figs from the oven and arrange on to four plates. Spoon out the sprigs of thyme from the honey and pour the warm honey over the figs. Serve while the figs are still slightly warm.