In French, there’s a great expression to describe a half-hearted attitude : mi-figue, mi-raisin or half-fig, half-grape. This expression comes from the ancient Corinthians, who with a bit of business cunning, allegedly sold their grapes to the Venetians for full price after having mixed into the basket a far cheaper ingredient : figs.
Right now, I’m seeing a lot of half-fig, half-grape attitude towards the back-to-school period, known in France as la rentrée. Kids go back to school, and refreshed, sun-tanned adults are supposed to come back from vacation with a renewed sense of work ethic, ready to tackle their jobs with gusto. This might be the case for many Parisians, but I guess I just don’t happen to know any of the enthusiastic ones.
In fact, when back-to-school arrives, I sometimes feel like the number of dispassionate Parisians is growing, almost as if they were being recruited for a secret blasé army, marching around the city with a bad case of Bitchy Resting Face (or RAF for men). Maybe it’s just me, but a lot of Parisians I know seem wholly ambivalent about… a lot of things. One friend, when he likes a new movie, for example, exclaims C’est pas mal which translates to "That’s not bad." And when he wants to express his bursting enthusiasm, he’ll exclaim C’est pas trop mal ! or "That’s not too bad !"
Someone I know saw a bumper sticker a few weeks ago that read : J’♥ rien, je suis parisien or "I ♥ nothing, I’m Parisian." Talk about blasé ! The only time I ever saw a bumper sticker in Paris, it was actually on someone’s car window, and it was in English : "Barbie is a bitch." Who knew ?
A mountain of figs
Maybe the back-to-school ambivalence is because some people’s vacation period just didn’t last quite long enough - two weeks instead of three or five, for example (we should all be so lucky). Or it might come from fighting last weekend’s rentrée traffic - the périph, or ring road, around Paris was saturated with motor vehicles crawling along on a massive black belt of assembly-line highway.
And this week the stores are filled with parents buying school supplies and clothes for their kids. All this back-to-school commotion is enough to provoke a bit of indifference in the month of September, so I guess I can understand this half-fig, half-grape attitude.
But let’s get back to that mountain of figs my friend so generously gave me. Before any actual recipe planning could happen, I just went ahead and tasted a fig : I wasn’t sure I liked the way the it
squished split apart in my fingers or the pulp’s purple grittiness. But I enjoyed the earthy flavor and the way that the fruit made me chew slowly and almost with hesitance, as if I were going to crunch down on a seed - kind of like with French grapes - but I never did. The fig just melted in my mouth.
Backpack like a circus pony
So now I feel like figs inspire everything but apathy : did you know that there are more than 700 varieties of the fruit ? Figs come into season during late August and the back-to-school period, and they happen to symbolize renewal and initiation, so the timing is perfect for a new school year !
In French, people say that figs are énergétique, meaning that they contain the kind of sugars that release slowly into the body’s metabolism, which is probably why Plato called figs a food for athletes. With a school day that lasts from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., French school children are indeed true athletes.
After their long day, stooped kids trudge home, weighed down with a backpack whose caliber resembles that of a circus pony. Prompted by reports of child scoliosis, parents have begun buying rolling book bags for their kids, and now children leave for school looking as if they’re on their way to Charles de Gaulle airport, known simply as Roissy the way the Pompidou Center is simply called Beaubourg.
"Coffee, cigarettes, and figs"
So I hope you’ll agree that there’s just no good reason to go through September with a half-fig, half-grape attitude ! In this recipe you won’t find grapes, but just whole-hearted figs, tasty both fresh and dried. You get the best of both worlds : fresh figs’ pulpy insides lend that earthy flavor to the dessert, and pleasantly gritty dried figs give texture and a little flavor boost if your fresh figs missed a little sun over the summer.
Figs deteriorate quickly, so buy them the same day you plan on using them. But who’d want to wait to eat ’em ? Definitely not the enthusiastic poet Paul Valéry, who once said, "You may deprive me of anything you like except coffee, cigarettes, and figs."