By Trish Crapo, Photos by Dan Little, Trish Crapo, and Dominic Perri, Food styling by Joy Howard
Ten years ago, a favorite customer brought us what looked like four dead sticks and said, “Here, stick these in the greenhouse and see what happens.”
The customer, a Brooklyn schoolteacher who, decades ago, built a weekend retreat here in Leyden, is Italian. She and her neighbors tend fig trees in their backyards in Brooklyn, coddling varieties brought from the homeland.
My husband, Tom Ashley, was dubious. The sticks didn’t look like much. His only experience with figs had been eating Fig Newtons. Neither of us had ever seen a fresh fig.
Flash forward 10 years and we’ve got six fig trees planted in the ground of the greenhouse here at Dancing Bear Farm, their branches straining the plastic during peak season. Hundreds more of five varieties grow in variously sized pots. One friendly gesture ended up charting a new course for our 30-year-old farm, emboldening us to grow things we wouldn’t have considered before. In the greenhouse, we’ve also got an olive tree, a clementine tree, and a giant rosemary bush.
“My little Mediterranean,” Tom calls it.
Certain foods seem to spark community, uniting people who share a passion for them, like the local Italian men’s lunch group that went crazy for the figs, or the Puerto Rican woman who reached out for fig starts for her fledgling small farm, hoping to help diversify the island’s diet. I’d thought this story would be about that sense of community.
But then, on the night of April 4, a cold front moved in, bringing 40- to 50-mph winds. We woke to find the skin of our large hoop house torn and flapping. Temps had been in the low 20s overnight. The sky was spitting snow.
All of a sudden, our fig story was about survival.
That night, Tom lost 30 trays of tomato plants, part of an order for a nursery. The rest of the order consisted of potted fig trees that had been healthy just the day before, with green leaves and even some small fruit. Now they looked discouragingly like those first four sticks.
Whatever we’d wanted to do that day went right out the window.
I headed off to buy plastic while Tom rounded up a crew of neighbors to be on call once the wind died down. But the wind blew all day. Temps remained in the mid-20s.
Finally, around 5pm, we had a lull. Using a system of boards and ropes, we tossed the plastic over. So far, so good. Then, a gust lifted the plastic like a parasail. It soared and roiled around us.
“It was a 72-foot-long kite,” Tom remembers, shaking his head. “Everybody’s just holding on to their one part, trying to keep it down until somebody comes along with a screw gun and a board.”
It took 12 people two hours to get the greenhouse properly secured. It’s hard to remember anything except the plastic lashing around us. During one gust, our neighbor Lynette and I were lifted right off the ground, clutching plastic in our fists.
The nursery agreed to take their tomato order late and Tom was able to replant from tiny seedlings that had survived on a heating pad. But it took a solid month before we began to see any significant recovery in the fig trees.
At this writing, in early May, all of what Tom calls the “mother trees,” the ones in the ground, have grown new leaves. Many of the potted ones are showing signs of life as well. Whether they’ll bear fruit this year, and how much, remains to be seen.
The storm was a great reminder of a couple of things: that nature is unpredictable, and much more powerful than we are. All farming—in fact, all human activity—is finally subservient to it. But we were reminded, too, as leaves began to sprout, of the resilience of plants. And of the incredible generosity of our friends and neighbors, who helped when we needed them.
So, in a sense, this fig story is still a story of community. For that, we’re grateful.
Fig Marsala Reduction Sauce
Tom makes reduction sauces for almost any kind of meat: steak, lamb, pork, or goat, even chicken or fish. For lighter meats, use vermouth or white wine. For red meats, we like to use marsala, a fortified wine from the region surrounding the city of Marsala, in Sicily. It comes sweet or dry. We prefer dry.
You can make a wine reduction without figs, but, as Tom says, “If you have the figs, that just aces it. Whatever you do, when you throw a few figs in there, it’s going to be delicious.”
½ cup dry marsala
8 fresh figs, cut into quarters
2 or 3 shallots, minced
2 or 3 garlic cloves
1 to 2 tablespoons of butter or ghee
Fresh or dried herbs such as rosemary or thyme to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
2 to 4 small steaks or chops
Rub steak or chops with salt and pepper or your favorite dry rub and let sit while you prep the rest of the ingredients.
Sear steak or chops 2 to 3 minutes per side in a very hot skillet or grill pan. Reduce heat and cook, flipping as needed, until just before desired doneness.
Remove meat and cover with foil to rest.
Pour in the marsala.
With the pan still hot, add butter and sauté the shallots and garlic.
Turn down the head and simmer on medium high.
Turn the heat down further and let the shallots caramelize, stirring often.
Throw in the figs, turn the heat back up, and get the pan sizzling hot in order to heat the figs through. Stir or shake the pan to distribute the sauce, while allowing it to thicken.
Add more marsala as needed.
Turn the heat off and let the sauce rest while you plate the meat. Then drizzle over the meat and spoon the figs on top. Serve and eat!