One of my earliest memories is of sneaking sticky, cold fig preserves from far back in the refrigerator. Not even a kindergartner yet, I had to strain and struggle to reach the jar.
Working quickly to avoid detection, I spooned deeply into a jar I believed to be filled with fig preserves but was, in fact, hot pepper relish. At first I tasted a familiar cold sweetness, then an unexpected sharpness from vinegar and spice, all rapidly obliterated: My mouth was on fire. A trap, I thought. Perhaps even divine retribution for stealing.
Soon after, my father purchased a small farm in the country, 12 miles outside of town. The more remarkable feature in the landscape was an extraordinarily large fig tree situated behind a dilapidated, never-painted farmhouse—monument and testament to a long-abandoned homestead.
The limbs were so massive and sturdy they could easily support the full weight of a 200-pound Methodist minister (a fig-fanatic friend of my father's) and, in fig season, regularly did.
In July and August, my whole family would head out to the farm several times a week for fig picking and return with plastic buckets, enameled dishpans, and brown paper bags from the Piggly Wiggly brimming with bounty. But we rarely ate them fresh. There was a single preparation for figs in the Peacock household: my mother's whole, stem-still-attached fig preserves.
As a chef, I have made my mother's fig preserves over the years, both at home and in the restaurants where I have worked. But it wasn't until recently that I had a fig tree of my own.
Six years ago, I bought a 180-year-old house in the Black Belt of Alabama. I fell in love with it instantly, but what stopped my heart on my first visit was the enormous old fig tree on the back edge of the property.
Since then I've established my own tradition of summer fig picking and preserving, inspired by my childhood.
I pick twice a day in peak season, morning and evening, and there is almost always an ironstone platter lined with fig leaves and filled with fruit on the table. Occasionally I make jam, and I still put up whole fig preserves. But now my personal tradition is making and putting up brandied figs, a nod to the brandied peaches I used to make each summer with my late friend and mentor Edna Lewis.
For these, whole fruit is picked at full ripeness with stem still attached; packed in half its weight's worth of sugar; and brought ever so gently to a slow simmer and allowed to cool, repeatedly, until the figs are coaxed to a candied translucence. Then and only then, I add a discrete quantity of good brandy and put the figs away, not to be seen again until December. My mother believes—and I agree—that preserves improve in the jar and that eating them should not be rushed.
Each summer when making the first batch of brandied figs, I put up a jar to pen on my birthday, the winter solstice, December 21. I eat those first brandied figs over ice cream—vanilla or coffee—accompanied by warm brown sugar shortbread. For very special and deserving friends, I mail a jar or two each season with a handwritten tag that says, "Do not open until the winter solstice." It's well worth the wait.
Jarred Figs Made Easy
The process is simple and slow: Patience here yields perfection.
1. Place rinsed figs in a single layer in pan, handling gently—fresh figs bruise easily. Cover with sugar to macerate for up to two days.
2. Slowly bring figs to a gentle simmer over low heat; cool and steep. Repeat twice. This process thoroughly candies the figs.
3. Distribute figs evenly in canning jars; cover with hot brandy syrup. Seal and wait; the flavor develops amazing nuances over time.