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Nature and Landscape
The fig tree in Puglia:
amidst “forgotten landscapes”
and new fig groves
Plants or dried figs were transported by ancient peoples across the Mediterranean basin.
Few other fruit trees can bear the summer heat and salty atmosphere.
Its fruits are exquisite (and are of several varieties) whether fresh or dried
by Francesco Minonne
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Fig trees in the Salento countryside with the sea as a backdrop. Photo by Francesco Minonne

      Figs have always represented one of the most important crops on the Apulian agricultural scene; of all the woody species that have sustained the regional agricultural economy, it could be said that they rank third in importance below the olive tree and the vine. Theirs is certainly a longstanding presence; the immigration of oriental peoples, before the Roman domination, which took place in these lands, and the commercial relationships with the places of origin of those peoples, may have enabled the importation of plants, and amongst these, also of diverse varieties of figs. As Ferdinando Vallese affirms: “Even when they hadn’t transported plants, the dried figs were certainly one of easiest and the most popular long-life foods in the voyages undertaken by the ancient peoples that populated the Mediterranean basin”.

      All over the region this plant had been considered of enormous value up to a few decades ago, if we think of the sustenance that this crop could offer to peasant and farming families; they often didn’t have the possibility to exploit crops which earned higher income; these people found their “rescue” in the fig, a frugal crop, which entered production swiftly and was easy to transform into dried fruit without outside help.

      However radical changes in the market and in consumer habits and the consequent reduction in the crops meant that the fig, within a few years, found itself amongst the so-called “minor fruits”, relegated to the margins of productive agriculture, and without that care and attention that it once enjoyed, often confined to cultural and alimentary neglect.

      Anyone who travels across the territory of Puglia these days will see only what is left of an ancient farming system connected with the fig trees; but at the same time can make out, with some difficulty, the markers of a rural landscape tightly bound up with this species; witness to a traditional crop by now neglected, we see it associated with the olive tree, the almond tree and also with vegetable crops in rare fig groves along the coastlines of north and south Salento, on the Murge, on the Bari Plain and on the vast Foggia Plain.

      In south Salento, apart from the age-old arboreal examples still present here and there in rural areas of all types, we can find some “hidden landscapes” with fig trees in gardens and in summer residences, in peri-urban allotments and even in urban environments in the little towns. A real arboreal archaeology, that characterizes agrarian landscapes, sometimes closed in between the coast roads and the immense blue strip of the marine horizon.

      In the coastal frame of southern Puglia, in fact, the tiny handkerchiefs of land that slope down in terraces from the coast roads to the sea give space and light to the ancient heritage of figs, prickly pears, mulberry trees and carobs and the few other fruit-bearing trees that can bear the salt atmosphere and the summer heat. Here, in fact, the immense olive tree patrimony, in the monotonous beauty of its woody landscape, finds its rare spots of discontinuity, opening up, every now and again, above the well-enclosed coastal terraces. Stupendous dry stone walls delineate the profile of the lands torn from the rocks with superhuman effort.

      Both the Ionian coast and the Adriatic coast offer, in this sense, all the signs of an archaic environment where the fig trees are still part of an old landscape however fragmented by an excess of buildings and by the “new greenery” of doubtful taste.

      Right between the spaces that have been left alive and immobile, between the white rocks of the cliffs, do we find the stone constructions that shared their environment with fig trees.

      Furnieddhi, old dry-stone ovens for the baking of figs, mantagnate, walls of dry-stone built to protect the plants from the salty winds along the coast or from the cold winds in the hinterland, spase, littere, heaps of minute rubble used for the desiccation on dried grass or on grates made of reeds. Within the little plots of earth we find pale and dark ficazzani, culummi, maranciana and above all rizzeddha, resistent in the extreme conditions of the coast which here reigns supreme amongst the varieties to be dried; even more than the omnipresent dottato that prefers the better terrains of the Apulian hinterland.

      The fragrant transport of figs and carobs used to take place along the hot and hostile shores of these coasts; the tasty figs picked and dried in August left room for the ones that had fallen and were over-ripe, which together with the cornule used to go to the mbarcu; that is, they were transported to the distilling plants, of which there were some important ones in the Lecce area, like in San Cesario di Lecce.

      Nowadays, in all the provinces the cultivation of fig trees is almost always associated with other fruits or grasses, but, over the past few years, new plants have been, or are being created; a re-found interest has caused some farming entrepreneurs to invest bravely in the production of fresh figs and in their transformation into the dried product and composites. The farm-tourism sector has also given, over recent years, a substantial contribution both to the conservation and to the promotion of this legacy, with the planting of small fig groves for internal production within their structures. Scientific projects, promotional initiatives and the action of the Apulian Nature Reserves all play an important part in this re-launching; within a far-reaching project of sustainable and creative agriculture the fig has found its ideal space to survive and continue to play its part on the tables of this land.

 

 

For more: Fichi di Puglia. Storia, paesaggi, cucina, biodiversità e conservazione del fico in Puglia. By Francesco Minonne, Paolo Belloni, Vincenzo De Leonardis. Coop. Ulisside Editore. Castiglione d’Otranto, 2012.

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