Written by Sarah Hendrickx


Turning Portuguese? Figs in space

In her regular column, Sarah Hendrickx shares with us what it’s like living part-time in Portugal. This month, she’s got just one thing on her mind…

figs in a bowl
It’s been one of those slow burners. A love, nay passion, that hasn’t truly been realised, by me at least (I cannot speak for you), for decades. In fact, completely the opposite: as a child I hated you.

You were forced upon me by my mother when my belly hurt, shoved under my nose by elderly relatives and relegated to the same realm as those other awful Christmastime confections that looked like cockroaches in a box. Oh, fig, what took me so long?

As a child of the 70s, my first learning of figs was from the carol We Wish You a Merry Christmas, where we demanded figgy pudding should be brought right here. I didn’t want any figgy pudding. I didn’t know what it was and it certainly didn’t sound very nice and I’d certainly never seen one. (Has anyone ever seen one?)

Figs were what I was given when I was – how shall I put it? – bunged up. In the form of syrup of figs, this brown, hideously sickly sweet unction was fed to me with the promise of loose bowels. This, it transpires, was the main purpose of figs in those days.

A good friend of mine from a large family recalls that fig rolls were known as her ‘special biscuits’ that her siblings were not permitted to eat, she being somewhat prone to the bunged up-ness. She was smug and delighted at her unique status. Who knew that being The Constipated One could bestow such privilege?

Figs were the preserve of old ladies and absolutely nothing that a cool, young thing like me would aspire to. I had never even tried one, but I hated them. Like Twiglets, dates and spinach, they were simply wrong.

“I seem unable to judge what constitutes too many figs when picking them and so I have to be gently led from the hills by Keith when I get the urge to roll around naked in piles of them. Did I say that out loud?”

Funny how things change – except the Twiglets; they are still wrong. Figs, however, are not wrong. Gently fried with halloumi, for pud with yoghurt and honey or chucked into a lamb and bean stew, they truly are my (current) favourite thing.

I know that I spend much of my time in a country (Portugal) where there are more figs than people and they come big, fresh and purple, and oh my god, I love them so much. I love them so much that I steal them. You can buy the big, juicy cultivated figs from our local market for a pittance, but you can steal them for free. Paying to steal things would be a great business proposition if there were a market for it. And I guess if you have paid for it, you haven’t actually stolen it. And I love to steal stuff.

Our Portuguese house is surrounded by empty countryside divided into parcels of land owned by generations of local people, many of whom have sadly died or left for the towns, or, as is often the case, emigrated. Rural Algarvian Portugal is an odd mix of affluent foreign built and owned villas and extremely basic, locally owned dwellings, often without running water. They sit side by side in amazing incongruity, each largely ignoring the other.

Large-scale farming is impossible in this landscape with this climate and so only the elderly and a few others are left here. The trees which were planted here many years ago – hundreds of years in some cases – are those which can survive without water: olives, carob, almonds and figs.

This means that these sturdy trees, which were once cultivated and harvested, are now left abandoned. This is a sad situation, but an understandable one: the young want opportunities and there are none here for them.

lots of figs
But every cloud has a silver lining and this state of affairs means that there are a lot of neglected fig trees from which I can score my fix without harming anyone. I should mention that by no means is this an acceptable practice and I don’t recommend it. If you don’t know whose land it is and whether they are just over the hill with a dog and gun, don’t go there. Me, I’m so addicted, I’ll take the risk.

Now, I’ve tried to eat as many as I can carry but the ‘loosening’ effect remains and despite being a fantastic weight loss tool, excessive fig scoffing has its drawbacks, which we won’t go into. I seem unable to judge what constitutes too many when picking them and so I have to be gently led from the hills by Keith when I get the urge to roll around naked in piles of them. Did I say that out loud?

I shall now be applying for CEO of The Fig Appreciation Society (they have 45 likes on Facebook, so I’m not expecting too much competition) and spreading the fig word internationally. If anyone is feeling a little ‘irregular’, do give me a shout. I have just the thing.

Read all of Sarah’s ex-pat dispatches here.


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Written by Sarah Hendrickx

Sarah Hendrickx is a writer, author, autism specialist and occasional standup comedian. She lives part-time in rural Portugal where she tries to make friends with geckos and grows broad beans. Her book about moving overseas, How to Leave the Country is available on Kindle/e-book. She blogs at www.bicyclesandbiscuits.com.