On a small farm on the west coast of France in a little town called Vendée a stone’s throw from the beach, a regal fig tree hung heavy with fruit. My flatmate Pierre spied these little purple ornaments and quickly filled up a bag just before hopping on a train headed for Paris. Pierre called me from the train to tell me about his fugitive figs and we quickly set out to come up with the perfect meal to honor these little purple treats.
Pierre grew up on this farm where he and his parents grew onions, shallots, garlic and these glorious figs. This sunny corner of France dates back to the 1100s when Eleanor of Aquitaine married the Duke of Normandy and subsequently King Henry II of England. The primary economy was agriculture but with the discovery of their pristine beaches, tourism prevailed and now every summer many French families migrate to this sea side for their summer vacation.
The fig has been traced back to Western Asia and is believed to have spread west throughout the Mediterranean area. It was cultivated for thousands of years as remnants of figs were found in excavations of Neolithic sites traced to at least 5,000 B.C. Greek Goddess Demeter heralded the fig as the Fruit of Autumn and the Romans regarded Bacchus as the god who introduced the fig to mankind. The fig tree was sacred and many images of the gods show them crowned, or clothed, with fig leaves. And we can’t forget to pay homage to that favorite childhood treat dating back to 1892, the fabulous Fig Newton, the first commercial product to contain figs.
Spanish missionaries are credited with bringing figs to California. They first planted them at the San Diego Mission, hence the name Mission Fig, and at each subsequent mission as they headed north past San Francisco. However these figs have a much more regal history that dates back to the Old Testament. Figs are mentioned extensively throughout the Bible and certain theories support that it was actually a fig that Eve ate that fateful day in the Garden.
Giddy doesn’t begin to describe it. After the first bite, I wanted to do cartwheels down the hall. Pierre and I high-fived and broke open a bottle of Rhone. This was the first time I’d made duck outside of a restaurant or cooking school or without a recipe so it was a little of this and a dash of that, crossing all fingers and toes and sending up a few prayers to the culinary gods. The duck was cooked to perfection – pink on the inside, moist, juicy, flavorful – and the sauce made with Pierre’s figs from Vendee was unctuous and delicious and melded perfectly with the duck. I love it when this happens
2 magrets de canard (duck breasts)
2 medium oranges, zested and juiced
quatre epices (all spice or four spice)
1 tbsp honey
oven-safe saute pan
1. Turn oven to 400F / 200C / No. 7
2. Zest and juice oranges.
3. Cut figs into one-eighths.
4. Score fat on duck breast in criss-cross pattern, making sure not to cut into the flesh (like Serge my blue-eyed butcher did above).
5. Heat up the pan over medium-high heat.
6. Put the duck breasts in fat side down and let the fat render, pouring it off as it accumulates in the pan. Don’t let it burn, turn the heat down to medium if necessary.
7. Once most of the fat is rendered, pour off all the fat, flip the duck over to flesh side down and add the chopped figs.
8. Put the pan in the oven on a middle shelf and roast for about 20-30 minutes, depending on the oven and size of magrets.
9. Take out duck and set aside on a plate to rest.
10. Place pan with the figs on medium to med-high heat, add half the orange juice, all the orange zest, a few shakes of cinnamon and all spice, one shake of cardamom, and honey. Combine and reduce.
11. Add orange juice to adjust consistency as you’d like. Taste and add spices to your taste.
12. Slice duck breast on the bias and spoon sauce over it.
I served this with simple haricot-verts (thin green beans) sauteed in olive oil, sea salt and ground pepper. Along with the duck breasts, we bought some Pommes Dauphines from our favorite butcher Serge Perraud with the big blue eyes. He and his wife weren’t sniping at each other that day so it was an uneventful visit but Serge was ready with advice and a wink. The last time Pierre and I were there, Serge and Madame Perraud were arguing because she came back late from her hair appointment. It was like watching a sitcom, but I digress… Pommes Dauphines are made from mashed potatoes and pate a choux formed into balls and deep fried. Hard to go wrong there! For dessert, we popped in to see Pascal and his brother Jean-Marc Pinaud and their eponymous pastry shop for a petit Bananier, a banana and chocolate delight.