[NAFEX] FIG FETISHISTS IN ONTARIO
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Sun Sep 6 08:42:53 EDT 2009
FIG FETISHISTS IN ONTARIO
When I’m able to blurt out only a hesitant good afternoon, Adriano
Ferreira pats me on the shoulder and graciously explains that the cor
rect phrase is bom dia, which means good morning. With a mere half -
dozen Portuguese words in my vocabulary, I’m far from fluent, but have
eagerly scanned my phrasebook before this visit because Ferreira had
told me he will only share his most important secrets if I speak to
him in Portuguese.
Although we’re in suburban Oakville, you’d hardly know it in this
manicured backyard filled with fig trees, plum trees, hardy kiwis, and
grape vines. Ferreira points out a recent addition – a peach tree to
which he has grafted a variety that bears doughnut -shaped fruit.
Then, point ing to a fig tree in the ground with a trunk the diameter
of a coffee mug, he says, “Anybody who has a house can have a big
plant like that.” And the secrets to doing so are exactly what I’m
here to learn. It’s figs that occupy most of Ferreira’s yard – and his
heart. “Once you grow them, they’re the only fruit you’ll want to
grow,” he exclaims. While he jokes about guarding his fig -growing
secrets, he is very gen erous with his time, taking a couple of hours
to coach me through grow ing, overwintering, pruning, propagating, and
ripening figs. It’s clearly a passion, and his enthusiasm shines
through when he points out the techniques he’s developed to overwinter
and coax fruit from his trees here in Southern Ontario.
Now retired, Ferreira started growing figs about thirty years ago
while working in real estate. Reading a gardening magazine, he stum
bled across the name of a fig -tree nursery in Massachusetts and noted
that it was close to where his brother lived. So on his next visit out
there, he contacted the nursery owner who, it turns out, grew up near
Ferreira in a neighbouring town in the Azores. They struck up a
friendship that helped kick start Ferreira’s fig tree collection.
Today, Ferreira’s collection takes up a good part of his yard where,
along with well- known varieties from fig- growing regions in Califor
nia, Portugal, Spain, France and Italy, he has varieties from places
such as the Canary Islands, Majorca, Austria, the former Yugoslavia,
Iraq and Iran. He has two hundred varieties, which he claims is one of
the largest private collections in the world – and the largest in
Canada. A recent ad dition is a tree that came up from seed in his
garden around the time his granddaughter was born; he named it after
her, calling it Angelika. Ferreira fields enquiries from fig
enthusiasts worldwide, both pri vate collectors and researchers. A
collector from Thailand recently paid him a visit. On another
occasion, a foreign collector called just to make sure he really
existed, surprised that such an avid fig collector – and fig trees –
existed in Canada. But Ferreira is for real; he knows this fruit and
his collection intimately, pointing to a particular tree and then
describ ing its growth habit and fruiting characteristics.
Someone who has tasted only dried figs or store -bought imported
“fresh” figs might not understand the fascination with this fruit.
Store -bought figs are never truly ripe because a fig picked too early
never ripens to perfection, remaining corky in comparison to its tree-
ripened cousin. When properly ripened, the neck of the fruit becomes
limp and the body droops. Then a glistening drop of nectar escapes
from the eye. This is the only time to pick it. By now, the fruit is
dead ripe and far too fragile to withstand shipping.
There are light- and dark- fleshed varieties, and light- and dark -
skinned ones, too. Ferreira’s website offers vivid descriptions such
as lemon -yellow skin, melting in your mouth, strawberry flavour, and
honey surrounding the pulp. When I wonder about the taste difference
between varieties, he likens it to wine. An uninitiated palate might
not perceive subtle taste nuances, but a connoisseur will.
“That’s a hard one,” he says, pausing when I ask about his favourite.
He especially likes a variety called Desert King because its first
crop ripens earlier than most varieties. But there are others he
favours be cause of their flavour.
Growing figs in Ontario
In warmer climates, figs grow to be large, branching trees. Small, spe
cialized pollinators – fig wasps – look after pollination in fig -
growing re gions. But there are some varieties that are self -
pollinating (requiring no wasps) that produce fruit here.
There are two crops per season, one formed on the previous year’s
growth, ripening in mid- summer, and one formed on the current
season’s growth, ripening in September and October. The key to getting
both crops is extending our relatively short season at both ends, and
protect ing trees from frost. “I’m always prepared,” says Ferreira as
he points to the plastic he keeps ready to cover plants if there’s a
late or early frost.
Ferreira explains the good news: you don’t need a greenhouse to grow
figs here. Many people with family ties to fig growing regions keep
potted trees that they bury outdoors or overwinter indoors. Instead of
burying them, Ferreira bends over his in -ground trees and then covers
them with an insulated A- frame, which offers sufficient protection
from the cold. But most of his plants are in pots. These he lays on
their sides within a wooden box that he covers with insulation,
moderating the temperature sufficiently that they survive. On my visit
in early May, they were beginning to leaf out.
Trees defoliate and go dormant with the first frost, he explains. In
that dormant state, they can also be stored in a cool, dark basement.
The key, he says, is to provide that dormant period. “They have to
sleep,” he cautions; otherwise, they might not fruit.
The real secret to coaxing the fruit to ripen in our climate is to
gain a few days of ripening time. Ferreira shows me a couple of trees
over which he’s draped clear plastic bags. This creates a warm
microclimate around the tree, helping it to come out of dormancy more
quickly. Once the current year’s growth is underway and figs are
forming, another trick is to break off the tip of the branch, leaving
four leaves on the current year’s growth.
What’s Ferreira’s big secret? Extra virgin olive oil. In the first
week of September, he looks for figs that don’t seem as if they will
ripen be fore winter, and puts a drop of extra virgin olive oil on the
eye. After six or seven days, he repeats the step. While this doesn’t
work on all of the fruit, he says, it helps some to ripen.
When I ask how big the collection will grow, Ferreira says, “I think
I’m going to stop,” saying he can only fit so many plants into a subur
ban yard. But then we visit his potting shed where he shows me a new
method he’s developed to root cuttings from other collectors, and he
shows me how he grafts hard- to- root varieties. I'm not certain I
believe he will ever stop.
Before I leave, Ferreira introduces me to his neighbour Domenic, who
has an immaculate vegetable garden and fig trees in his greenhouse.
Grinning, he motions to Ferreira to look at his well -developed fig
trees. The secret, Domenic says, is that he sings to his figs in
Italian. Ferreira laughs and responds that he sings to his figs in
... AND IN BRANTFORD
I’ve come to Brantford to see Peter Vicano’s fig collection, housed in
the “figatorium” he built at his house. Meeting him at the offices of
his con struction company, we start by touring the small greenhouse
he’s also built there so he can have figs at work, too. “I have a
fetish for figs,” he laughs.
“You haven’t lived until you’ve eaten a fig off a tree,” he says. For
Vi cano, no other fruit compares to a fig. “It’s the most exotic
fruit; it’s the only word I can use to describe a fig, exotic.” While
Vicano is passionate about figs, he’s fussy, too: “You can’t buy a
really good fig,” he says, ex plaining that a ripe fig should be eaten
within three hours of picking.
Besides being exotic, figs play an important role in Vicano family
tradition. He tells me that it is customary to place fig leaves on the
bot tom of a basket filled with figs which, when given as a gift,
wishes well being. Vicano has been playing with figs for the past
twenty- five years, since he got his first tree from his dad, who
brought a fig plant from Italy when he immigrated to Canada in 1956.
Figs in the family
Vicano’s late uncle Rocco was a top- notch fig grower, with whom he
had a friendly rivalry. Vicano is now custodian of one of his late
uncle’s prized fig trees. His aunt still grows a potted fig tree,
although he hasn’t been able to replicate the large crop she gets, and
she won’t tell him her secret. Vicano’s mom, at the age of eighty, is
also still tending a couple of fig trees. And his four children all
love figs, he says.
“A fig tree will grow anywhere; you stick it in the ground, and it
will root,” explains Vicano. He currently has ninety- four fig trees
from all over Italy. Despite his zeal for figs, he plays down his
knowledge, say ing, “I’m far from the expert.” When referring to
relatives who consis tently get good crops, Vicano says, “Certain
people have knacks.” Then he suggests talking to a collector by the
name of Adriano Ferreira...
Vicano used to overwinter his fig trees by burying them. But he always
wondered if there was a better way. “I’d lay awake at night thinking
about this,” he says, as we talk about what he jokingly refers to as
his fi gatorium. Vicano says many people lose the first crop of figs
when they uncover their trees too early.
He describes the figatorium, now in its third year, as being like the
Toronto Sky Dome, with a retractable roof. The purpose is to get two
pickings – and to exclude squirrels and chipmunks. Heated by a water
boiler, the structure is a greenhouse with permanent walls and a re
movable plastic roof that he lifts off in the summer. “My wife really
didn’t want me to do it,” Vicano chuckles as we drive up towards the
84- foot -long building in front of his house.
Figs won’t taste right if grown indoors, according to Vicano, which is
why he has the removable plastic top, allowing them exposure to the
elements. With the figatorium, he says, he eats figs from the
beginning of June until November. While the picking window is only
about two weeks per plant, he gets a fairly continuous supply thanks
to the nu merous varieties he grows. It’s the second crop, which
ripens in Sep tember and October, that has a more intense, sweet
flavour. While the squirrels and chipmunks get fewer figs, there is
still the occasional hitch: Vicano explains that the heating system
recently failed and that sometimes it gets too hot in the figatorium
and the figs don’t get enough dormancy to fruit properly.
“I really enjoy it,” says Vicano, talking about all the work that goes
into raising figs. He often sends guests home with plants and I’m no
exception, returning home with two new fig trees for my garden.
Vicano has added an Ontario twist to the family fig traditions. Once
the crop begins to ripen, he and a friend sit down to celebrate the
ripening of the figs – by pairing freshly picked figs with a bottle of
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