Figments of Imagination
Now sagging and crumbling with the customary wear and tear of the years and the ravages of difficult times—wars, death, weather—the atrium garden, framed by pillars and punctuated by a gurgling stone fountain, remains very much the same. Large, fat roses, always a bit too colorful with petals unfastened, like the heaving bosoms of ladies of the evening, flock together. Over-eager and too-intensely perfumed they boldly face the assault of the arrogant sun.
The heat in this town is oppressive and thick. Long hours were spent on Sunday visits to the house swinging back and forth on creaky white wicker rocking chairs, the sweat suctioning the backs of our legs to the seat as the speckled hen patterned black-and-white floor fumed ever hotter.
These Sundays inched forward painfully, but lunch at the big round table was a just reward. There were large platters of rib roast, the meat slipping off the bone, crab bisque with whole saucer-sized crabs you got to pick apart on your plate, potato gnocchi drowned in the house’s secret pink sauce and buried in crumbly cheese that had been bought by the slab at the market that morning, refried beans that shimmered in lard and were brought to the table in a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet that had long ago had its handle amputated.
And the preserved fruits. Depending on what was in season there was always a homemade, industrial-sized jar filled with amber fruits floating in slow motion in a thick, golden syrup. Mangos, papayas, a slew of tropical fruits I never learned the English names for, and my favorite: figs.
Years ago there was a fig tree in a corner of the garden. The figs hung low and plump, hiding in the shade of its own parasol leaves. The tree was unceremoniously cut down after the occasional evening bat became legion. Mamamá was always business-like with household pests. On a summer visit I brought a kitten home from the farm only to later learn he’d been dispatched to the market in a burlap sack. Mamamá told me Pascual had gone to Miami, and for a long time I envisioned him living in glorious exile.
Tree or no tree, higos en miel were made whenever they were in season. The “figs in honey” were sticky and sweet, their tiny seeds tickling my mouth; I’ve always thought that sunshine would taste just like one of those translucent orbs. The figs, those delicate purses lined with precious beads, were gently peeled and drowned in simple syrup and a fresh leaf from the tree, then simmered under Mamamá’s strict and perspiring brow.
Last week while I leaned over the pot to check on my figs, my eyes and nose smarted as if I’d taken a gulp of chilled heavily carbonated Coca-Cola; my grandmother’s kitchen, the roses, the bats, the disappeared cat, the damp manure and chicken droppings caked to the soles of my shoes; all rushed back.
HIGOS EN MIEL (Poached Figs)
Active Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Total Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Equipment: vegetable peeler, large heavy-bottomed saucepan or Dutch oven, parchment paper
Note: Figs will keep in an airtight container, refrigerated, for 1 week.
30 small fresh, ripe black figs (about 2 pounds)
2 cups sugar
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
4 cups water
Carefully peel figs and trim and discard stems.
Stir together sugar, dark brown sugar, salt, and water in large heavy-bottomed saucepan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat and boil syrup until sugars are dissolved and syrup thickens, 5 to 7 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low and add figs.
Cut a piece of parchment paper in the shape of pot. Cut a nickel-sized vent in the middle. Press parchment directly onto surface of fig-syrup mixture.
Simmer figs until translucent, gently stirring from time to time, about 1 hour.
Cool figs completely, at least 1 hour. Figs may be served at room temperature or chilled.
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