Ripe Figs in January (& what to do with them)

Fresh Fig Salad with Basil & Mint

Yes I’m picking whopping big figs at the moment here in Nelson.    Most people think of figs as a late summer harvest but some varieties reward you with two crops a year, an early crop, known as a “breba” crop, and a main crop in late summer.     Varieties that produce this magic early crop include French Sugar, Mrs Williams, Brown Turkey, Brunswich and Oakura.    Breba crops grow on last seasons growth and hang on the tree over winter looking like unripened fruit (don’t pick them off!).   Come Spring they burst into action and are ripe around Christmas.

breba crop fig
Breba crop fig ripening on last seasons wood with main crop figs just forming on new growth

Fresh figs are one of life’s great food treats.   They have a melting, velvety, texture and a subtle smoky spicy flavour.    They’re hard to find in shops because they don’t keep well but they’re easy to grow at home.  No fancy spraying and pruning regimes required.  These two crop varieties are handy for Southern gardeners who struggle to ripen a later crop.

We have a large spreading French Sugar fig tree which I harvest by pulling the bendy branches down to plucking height.    This early crop ripens over the course of a couple of weeks so I patrol the tree each evening to pick ripe fruit before the birds get it.   You can pick figs when they start showing a little colour and soften slightly and they’ll keep ripening off the tree but in my experience the longer you leave it on the tree the better the fruit is.   Sometimes I pull mesh bags over the branches I really want but mostly I like my evening fig patrol and the tree is big enough to share a few with the birds.

So what do you do with them?  This early crop I usually enjoy eating fresh.   The photo above is a delicious light salad of whole basil and mint leaves with sliced figs, dressed with a tangy combo of sesame oil, lime juice, palm sugar and a little tamari.   It looks so posh, takes no time at all and tastes amazing.     If you want to bulk it up add crumbled feta and/or toasted nuts but I prefer these heavier salads in late summer.   I also love fresh figs with honey and yogurt for breakfast and for dessert pop figs under the grill for a few minutes with a little brown sugar and red wine or orange juice and serve with a dollop of sweetened marscapone.

French Sugar Figs
Early crop French Sugar Figs – eat em fresh.

By the time the main crop ripens in Autumn I’m in more of a preserving / squirreling frame of mind and I make a delicious fig and red onion savoury jam which I use through winter with strong and blue cheeses and cured meats.     Years ago I had, and lost, a Ray McVinnie recipe for this jam which he spread on bread dough with feta, rolled up and baked.   I made it a few times and it was divine.   This jam is my approximation of that.   If you’re out there Mr McVinnie I’d love the original.

Red Onion, Fig & Balsamic Jam

  • 3 large red onions
  • 4 cups of chopped figs
  • 2 tablespoons of butter
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 1 cup of brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon of cumin seeds, toasted and ground
  • 1/2 teaspoon of coriander seeds, toasted and ground
  • 1/4 cup of balsamic vinegar
  • salt and pepper to taste

Chop the onions in to rings and cook them on a low heat in a heavy fry pan in the butter and olive oil until they are clear and caramelised, stirring often (30mins).    Add the figs with the brown sugar and ground spices to the onions.    Cook on a medium heat, stirring often, until the figs and onions have reduced to a bubbling jam like consistency (30mins).    Season to taste, add the balsamic vinegar and combine.

Store this in the fridge in jars and it will keep for ages.   You can freeze it too.

French Sugar Figs
Figs will continue to ripen off the tree if they have started to soften and colour up.

For more fig cuisine inspiration visit the-fig-file on pinterest:   



  1. I’m on a desperate search for fresh figs for a photo shoot in San Fran. Any idea where I may order them?

    1. Hi Grace, sorry we can’t help. You won’t find any fresh figs in San Fran in January. By the time I sent you some of mine from New Zealand they would be pretty ripe indeed. Your only hope maybe someone has frozen some fresh figs for use in jam making etc. during winter. May pay to ask at your local farmers market. Dried ones won’t reconstitute well so don’t bother trying that.

      1. Hi heather.

        Wow.. such delicious figs… i have been looking for ” French Sugar figs” and i have no luck here in malaysia…
        hoping you could make me some branch cutting…


        1. Sorry Jonathan, we don’t export our fruit trees or cuttings.

  2. do you sell cutting to New Zealander and if so can you let me know what varieties

    1. Hi Ann, thanks for your email. We don’t sell cuttings but check out the range of figs from Waimea Nurseries available in local garden centers – they are good. Also if you find a good tree in your neighbourhood growing well you can easily take cuttings from that.

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