Farmers Markets: Panachée figs earn their stripes

In gorgeously striped Panachee figs, which are being harvested commercially for the first time this month, the beauty is more than skin deep. Ripe specimens have super-sweet, jam-like pulp, with a counterbalancing acidity uncommon in other varieties and an intense berry flavor.

The spotlight on Panachée has been a long time coming. The variety was first described by that name, which means "variegated," in France in 1826, but similar types were noted as far back as the 17th century. Very likely it's a striped mutation of Col de Senora Blanca, a green-skinned Spanish variety that was described by Robert Hogg, a great Victorian fruit connoisseur, as "one of the finest figs in cultivation."

California fig farmers experimented with Panachée a century ago but decided it wasn't worth growing because it is not very productive and doesn't dry well. At the time, fresh figs were too perishable to be shipped long distances, so dried figs were the main crop. Five varieties, Calimyrna, Black Mission, Adriatic, Kadota and Brown Turkey, came to dominate fig cultivation.

In the last decade, however, while California dried fig production has declined, fresh fig shipments have boomed, abetted by new plastic clamshell containers that protect figs better than the previously used berry baskets.

Kevin Herman of the Specialty Crop Co., the world's largest fig grower, tasted Panachée at the National Clonal Germplasm Repository at Davis, a federal collection where it is a favorite among the 195 fig types. He liked its rich flavor and its relatively thick skin, conducive to good shelf life. Since 2009 he has planted 160 acres of the exotic-looking Panachée, which his sales partner, Stellar Distributing, is marketing as Tiger.

To compensate for Panachée's less abundant production, it fetches a wholesale premium of about 30% over standard varieties, said Kurt Cappelluti, sales manager of Stellar. Since relatively small quantities are available, about 250,000 pounds this year, allocations of Panachée serve as an inducement to chains that buy the company's other fig varieties, he added.

"They'll get the lion's share of the Tiger figs," he quipped.

The harvest from Herman's plantings, north of Fresno, runs from August through October, and the largest, most attractive fruits show up in the next few weeks. They will be at Gelson's and Whole Foods markets starting this weekend.

Like other fig varieties, Panachée is sweetest and most flavorful when picked very ripe, but stores insist that it be firm enough for long shelf life. Overripe fruits are frozen or processed into paste for cookies.

"It kills me to dry these figs after I've spent all the money to hand-pick them," said Herman, 54, popping a luscious specimen in his mouth as he strolled through an orchard of surreally striped Panachées. "As a consumer I want this jamlike texture, but if I shipped dead-ripe figs to the East Coast, they'd be moldy when they got off the truck."

Most large fig growers have been reluctant to plant new and unusual varieties, but Herman also has 320 acres of Sierra, a green-skinned variety released by the University of California in 2005. Jim Doyle, the breeder, intended it as a more productive replacement for Calimyrna, the longtime leading fig variety in California. Calimyrna produces dried figs with an incomparable nutty, honeyed quality, but it requires laborious and expensive pollination by fig wasps, a process, called caprification, that limits the yield and introduces spoilage problems, such as mold, into a small but significant portion of the crop.

Sierra, which does not require caprification and which Herman grows for both fresh shipping and drying, looks like a slightly smaller and greener version of Calimyrna, with a similar mild, honeyed taste as a fresh fig. Ironically, the caprification that is economically problematic for Calimyrna also imparts through the seeds a rich, nutty flavor and crunchy texture to the dried figs; consequently dried Sierras are very good, but not as superb as Calimyrnas.

Herman, who is also experimenting with cultivating goji berries and black truffles, is careful to grow his Panachées far away from Calimyrna plantings, because caprification by wandering fig wasps would alter the Panachée fruit. The fruits would be larger, with even deeper red flesh, which would be advantageous, but would commonly split, a major problem.

For fresh fig quality, the most important factors are ripeness, freshness and production in a suitable growing area. For commercial farming, Panachée is best adapted to hot inland areas, but it also produces excellent fruit, as well as serving as a spectacular ornamental tree, in more coastal districts. (Papaya Tree Nursery sells the trees.) At the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market, Garcia Organic Farms will sell small quantities of ripe Panachées starting in about two weeks.

More unusual fig varieties may be available for the first time in coming years. Starting next year the fig industry will sponsor a test planting of about a dozen promising selections from the Davis germplasm repository, to see if any are suitable for commercialization. And for his part, Herman is excited about a violet-striped fig that he learned of on a recent visit to a great fig collector in Spain. Purple Tiger, perhaps?

Notes: Joyce Chan, manager of the Atwater Village farmers market since its founding eight years ago, has been selected by the City of Torrance to manage its two large farmers markets, replacing longtime manager Mary Lou Weiss, who died June 22. "Mary Lou was a mentor to me, and I feel grateful to have been chosen to continue her commitment to the farmers, to the community, and to market integrity," said Chan, 48.

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