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Newton Filler : Perishable, exotic figs aren’t stocked fresh at grocery stores, but can be found at the farmers market.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Americans know it as the dried, chewy center of a favorite cookie, but fresh figs, born from a broad tree, have been a delicacy throughout the Mediterranean region since ancient times. And the fig tree’s lobed leaf has made its own contribution to civilization--and to modesty.

Almost all commercially grown figs are raised in California. But except for those in private back yards, you won’t find any commercial producers in Ventura County. The more hot and arid San Joaquin Valley and the Sacramento Valley are where the money figs are harvested.

But while dried figs can be found in most local markets, you would be hard-pressed to find the fresh version. Those are deemed too perishable to keep in stock.

Don’t fret, Ventura County fresh fig fanciers. There’s hope. Trek to the Wednesday installment of the Ventura Farmers Market and you will find Jan Finfrock--along with an assortment of vegetables. Finfrock offers the fresh pickings from her two fig trees.

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“We’ve always had the trees,” she said recently, “but this is only the second year I’ve brought them to the market.”

The daunting appearance of the purple-skinned, pear-shaped fruit had always been less than enticing to Finfrock. She left them for other inhabitants of her yard to enjoy.

“They looked kind of sickening to me,” she said, “so I used to feed them to the geese and chickens. One day I opened one up and tried it and it was real, real sweet.”

With her two fig trees producing abundantly, she thought she might as well offer them at the farmers market.

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“I decided to take the figs,” she said, “but I wasn’t sure what price to ask.”

She checked with a number of specialty markets in Ojai and Ventura, but could find none offering fresh figs--only the dried version. Given the figs’ fragility and short shelf life, shop owners are reluctant to carry them.

“I was left having to guess at a price range.”

Her price, it seems, was right.

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“I found there was a great demand for fresh figs. I sold out in about 20 minutes,” she said.

What Finfrock hadn’t discovered before--something her customers knew--was the fig’s dark skin shrouded a tasty flesh.

“The meat is real moist,” she said. “Not juicy like a peach, but real sweet.”

Finfrock offers the Mission and Brown Turkey varieties.

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“The Mission is the sweetest and it’s my best seller,” Finfrock said. “The inside is a bright pink. The Brown Turkey is similar in appearance but slightly smaller and its flesh is darker pink.”

According to the California Fig Advisory Board in Fresno, figs made their way to the Golden State via the missionary fathers, who planted them as early as 1759. Those maiden trees were the beginning of what is now an estimated $18-million industry for California growers.

It was more than the fruit’s mild sweetness that attracted the missionaries to the fig. Figs are healthy. They are high in potassium--80% higher than the banana, according to the Fig Advisory Board. Also high in fiber and calcium and low in calories, figs offer the highest mineral content of all common fruits.

The most popular varieties in this country are the amber-colored Calimyrna and the dark-purple-fleshed Black Mission. A few other types are used exclusively in the manufacture of fig paste for industrial use--a la Fig Newtons.

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Harvest time for the fig arrives early in June and again about mid-July. The fruit ripens and is left to partially dry, at which time it will fall to the ground. After collection, the fruit is further sun-dried or dehydrated and sent off for packing.

In order to be sold fresh, a fig must be picked when ripe--it will not continue to ripen, said Billie Jo Stidham of the Fig Advisory Board.

“Once ripe, they are so perishable,” she said. “It is a real fleeting moment. That’s why only a few specialty stores carry them.”

Dried, however, they can be had year-round.

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Which brings us back to Finfrock--the only seller of fresh figs at the Ventura Farmers Market and one of the few outlets in the county. Her two varieties of fresh figs will be available for about another three weeks, she said. Four for a buck--get ‘em while they last.

* WHERE AND WHEN

The Wednesday farmers market is held 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Montgomery Ward parking lot at Mills Road and Main Street in Ventura. For more information, call 529-6266.

SERVING SUGGESTION / Fig, Prosciutto, and Yogurt Salad

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1/2 cup lemon-flavored yogurt

1/2 cup sour cream

1 tablespoon shredded fresh mint

12 small or 6 large fresh figs, stems off (about two ounces total)

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Mint sprigs

6 thin slices prosciutto (about 2 oz. total)

In a small bowl, blend yogurt, sour cream and shredded mint. Cut small figs vertically in halves; cut large figs into quarters. Cut prosciutto slices in half crosswise; roll up each piece.

Spoon yogurt mixture equally into centers of four salad plates. Divide figs and prosciutto evenly among plates, arranging figs cut side up atop dressing. Garnish with mint springs and serve at once. Makes four servings.

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