Interview with a Fig-Man

Keith Wilson is a fig expert and a global fig consultant, assisting international fruit export companies and fruit production companies on all matters relating to figs.

” I think my love of cooking, a visit to France and a French language course at Alliance Francaise led me to find out that King Louis XIV was instrumental in bringing the best figs to France because it was his favourite fruit. And in a way, I guess, I wanted to bring the best figs to South Africa…

This is how Keith Wilson (aka Fig-Man) started his journey with figs. We had a chat with him and threw in some questions for fun.

First and foremost, who knighted you with the name Fig-Man?

I was given this name by my Australian son-in-law Bobby, who noticed my obsession with figs.

I recall him telling me, in and around 1999, about a new search engine that had become operational and was very good, Google.

I was on his computer every Friday and Saturday night when he was working in the kitchen at their restaurant. Bobby and my daughter, Karen, had a restaurant in Riebeek Kasteel at the time.

Keith in California
Keith in California exploring some dragon fruit varieties. Dragon fruit is another passion of his.

 What is your favourite fig variety and why?

Col de Dame. This fig has a deep blood red pulp with a rich taste and juicy when ripe.

 What are the most popular fig varieties available?

The largest selling commercial fresh fig is the Bursa Siyahi or Black Fig from Bursa in Turkey. Approximately 20 000 tons are picked and shipped around the world.

The Violet de Sollies is another popular purple-black fig grown around the town of Sollies Pont in the Var Prefecture of France.

Brown Turkey and some other variants are grown in Brazil, California and Israel but it is not a good variety in my opinion. 

 Are there any exciting new projects in the pipeline?

In South Africa we have established the first ten hectares of a new purple/black breba variety. A breba fig is one that is found on the previous season’s growth.

We have several new varieties of which the first will be budded in existing orchards this season. This has proved to be a good and fast method to get new varieties into production quickly.

I am working on a project in Ethiopia where we have planted Ronde de Bordeaux. There are also a few varieties in Egypt where we hope to get a project going within the next few years.

Dauphine variety fig
Dauphine variety fig

 When did your interest in figs begin?

My daughter, Karen, trained as a chef at Silwood and after finishing her course went to London to gain experience. I don’t ever recall telling her about how much I liked figs but somehow she knew this and it was while she was there in 1996-1997, that she picked up on how figs were becoming more visible in UK recipes and supermarkets which she told me about.

In 1997 I started looking at fresh figs in a different light and saw that it was a premium priced fruit that could be exported.

At the  same time The Agricultural Research Council of South Africa (ARC) had completed a 15 year project evaluating fig varieties that they had imported to see whether there were any that could be farmed for the drying market. Fresh was not on the radar at the time.

I managed to obtain cuttings of all these varieties and grew them on my brother’s farm. Although, it quickly became apparent that we did not have the correct varieties in South Africa for fresh fig production. 

 What are the biggest challenges when commercially farming figs?

Because the fruit are fragile, picking the fruit at the right time on the farm coupled with well planned logistics is very important so that the fruit reaches the consumer in optimum condition.

 Who is eating figs? Who is the target market? What country consumes the most figs?

Yavuz Tanner, who started the Turkish company Alara, the world’s biggest exporter of figs, once mentioned that according to market research they had conducted, figs are very often an impulse buy rather than one that a consumer would have on her/his shopping list.

Caroumb variety fig
Caroumb variety fig

 Is it true that most of the figs produced in South Africa are exported?

 A high percentage of figs are exported from South Africa to the UK, Europe, Middle East, Far East as well as Canada. The quantity marketed locally amounts to approximately 40% of the total harvest. 

 Describe the ultimate fig? 

The ultimate fig would be one that would have a shelf life of at least 5 days and be able to be transported long distances (perhaps even by sea freight from South Africa).

It should have a deep red pulp and a thin but strong dark purple/black peel with a tiny ostiole to prevent the entry of organisms into the fruit. It goes without saying that the flavor should be rich and sweet with a slight tartness.

 Figs have been around for forever and a day. How many fig varieties are there? 

The most famous of all fig researchers and breeders was the American, Ira Condit, who assembled a monograph of fig varieties in the 1950’s. He documents over 650 varieties but there are even more than that as his access to certain countries, like for example those in the Caucases, was limited.

Do the Australians eat figs? 

I have visited fig farms in the foothills of South Australia where they grow several varieties for their local market. At AUS$29.99 per kilogram it’s quite a luxury item. I was also able to visit what is probably one of the most southerly fig farms in the world in Havelock North which is on the south coast of the North Island of New Zealand.

panache variety fig also known as Tiger fig
Panache variety fig also known as Tiger fig

Do you have any good food combinations with figs? 

My favourite is a tomato and fig salad with rocket and creamy goat’s cheese. I prefer them fresh rather than cooked. 

 Are you aware of any health benefits of consuming figs?

Figs have a high level of soluble fiber as well as potassium, calcium, iron and vitamin K and B6.

The first time I ate a fig I was ten years old, so what year is that…1989. Before then I never heard of the fruit.  It was a yellow-greenish fig that I had to peel.  Do you know what variety it could have been?

There are not many fig varieties in South Africa, the most common yellow peel variety was and probably still is White Genoa.  

Colar variety fig
Colar variety fig

When did you have your first fig and what variety was it?

I must have been around seven or eight years old when I recall eating my first fig from a fig tree growing in my uncle’s front garden.

We used to visit him every Friday evening. So during the season, we always looked forward to the visit, because we knew there would be juicy sweet figs to eat straight off the tree. The tree was big and we had to climb the tree to pick them. They were purple/black skin color with a red pulp.

This was something we did throughout my entire school going days and although we had fruit trees in our back garden back home the figs at my uncle was always my favourite. I have no idea what variety it was…

Keith on his way to check some figs.
Keith on his way to nurture some figs.
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5 thoughts on “Interview with a Fig-Man

  1. Eventually I get around to commenting on this. I’ve met Keith briefly once before. Know more about him thru Pieter, and Will, of course. Would love to try the Tiger Fig. Have never seen it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Fig consultant”!! Charming. Mr Wilson’s story reminds me of my history with pomegranates, though my passion unlike his remains unrequited. I absolutely do fancy myself as being a “pomegranate consultant”, though.
    My grandfather Harry had an incredible garden, on the fruit front he grew table grapes, apricots, peaches, many things, figs too but I don’t remember those, only in the jam they were turned into which found itself on large, buttered, dusty warm scones and cream. Prize of place to us children anyway was an incredibly old but fecund much like my grandfather himself pomegranate tree. The tree always had football sized deep red fruit during the hottest time of year. Partially cracked open when fully ripe to reveal the glittering, darker, pigeon blood red ruby like jewels inside. As kids we used to clamber up the wooden step ladders both there for tree support and to reach the fruit. Always going for the cracked fruit as the flavour was the best. The birds loved that tree too and a pair of Golden Orioles had set up a nest in the gnarled old trunk. I’ve never seen fruit quite like that ever again. The sheer size, quantity and colour and rich sweetness like nothing I’ve ever bought at a supermarket. I went back many years later as an adult and the tree was gone. There was no fruit of any kind, no fields of bearded iris, no vines or humming bees, nothing . The old stone homestead with its wide verandas and cool marble kitchen marooned in a gently undulating sea of veldt grass. A rather lovely burnished copper red Brahman bull grazed lazily where the fruit orchid ought to have been, and I thought I heard a jackals, otherwise not a soul for miles. The taste of pomegranates lingers eternal, though and I hope to one day see another tree quite so magnificent.

    Like

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