A figo for thee, then

The clouds showed up last night. Summer nearing its end.

Forgive me for the long silence. Sometimes when I’m here in our old place in Greece I end up posting endless stuff about the minutiae of life and the foodways of rural Corfu. For the last five weeks I have been simply living it, without analysing or reporting, delightfully hedonistic, experiencing the summer through my skin – the sensations of salt water and scorching sunshine, of heat and sweat and showers that should be colder but aren’t because the water pipes run up the side of the mountain and are too hot to touch by the end of the afternoon. We have had good friends to stay, and visited others; we have made new friends who I think will remain friends – which is surprising and delightful at my age. There has been a succession of young people – teenagers or in their early twenties – who have brought charm and innocence and energy to this parched old island.

Tomorrow, my daughter will arrive, closely followed by her friends. Mae has been performing at the Edinburgh Festival and I can’t wait to hear about her experiences. The news I will offer her in return is slightly more parochial. I have replaced the window in the bathroom, built a stone wall on the terrace, built another one in the car park (secretly lined with cement to stop rain washing down the hill and rinsing the topsoil out of the bouganvillea beds). I have been waging a war against wasps.

This requires a new paragraph. There was a time in my life when wasps were no more than a minor inconvenience. I would read with condescending amusement about the last Earl of Traquair in Ettrick, in Scotland, who died, unmarried, in 1861. He was a frugal man with two abiding passions – for personally sharpening his tenants’ razors and for hunting wasps, creatures he particularly despised. I now know how he felt. All summer long, wasps from the olive grove have been swarming up onto the human parterres and waging a cultural war. They want food and water, I suppose, so they are ubiquitous when I set off at sunrise each morning with the hose to lubricate the plumbago and the rosemary hedges, the dahlias and the basil globes, the geraniums and the pomegranate bushes. When people come round at the social hour (6:00pm) and we try sit out on the terrace with wine and figs and smoked pork tenderloin sliced tissue-thin, they make our lives a misery.

I know where they live. It’s a wild nest – a pit like the pits of Orthanc where Saruman breeds his uruk-hai – just a hole in the ground amidst the pale yellow straw on the edge of the olive shadows. I have been watching it for weeks, hatching plans. I have seen how they come and go, ceaselessly, from the first glimmer of dawn to nightfall. They have their own anxieties. Hornets wait close by and swoop in as the individual wasps decelerate to enter the nest. A hornet seizes a wasp in mid-air – they’re so big you can see their grasping legs – and carries it off slowly to an olive tree to devour it. Horrific! But there are few hornets and many wasps.

The fig tree beside the path

I could have left it all alone, ignoring all the Vespidae, if it weren’t for my neighbour. This year I cleaned out the apothiki, the garden shed where we store everything from old building materials to charcoal and tools, from diesel fuel to worked stones and a picnic basket that had been a wedding present, 29 years ago. Our neighbour liked the look of some of the things we were discarding and in return gave us free access to the fig tree that lies on the edge of her property, where the footpath to the village leads through the olive groves. She was going back to Athens for a while, so it wasn’t the most altruistic gift that has ever been offered, but it meant something in the tiny, internecine politics of our particular hillside. The figs on this fine old tree are just ripening now – plump, juicy green figs as sweet as dates. It would be lovely to go down there early each morning, clapping our hands to ward off snakes from the pathway, and gather a dozen or so for our breakfast, rinsing the dust off in cold water, gently peeling back the green skin, breaking open the soft white globes to reveal the complex fig-world of sweet red flesh and tiny yellow seeds. The fig was the first plant cultivated by mankind, long before wheat and the other grasses, long before olives and the other drupes, long before melons. It is a voluptuous fruit, a metaphor for a woman’s sexual organs because it resembles them when split by ripeness and the sun. Its sweetness, almost unmitigated by any of the balancing acidity one finds in peaches or grapes, excites the visceral, calorific sugar-greed of the human ape. The word “sycophant” means “one who shows the fig” in ancient Greek – in other words, “one who gives you the finger” – rather a sophisticated definition that roots out the silent disdain that consumes the soul of people who must live by flattery. The Elizabethan English picked up on that – remember Pistol’s insult to the disguised Henry V – “a figo for thee then!” Buddha found enlightenment under a fig tree. Mohammed recommended them as a cure for haemorrhoids.

So anyway, I had legal access to these fine green figs, swelling on their noble tree. I was planning to pick them, wash them, halve them and set them out on a white cotton cloth, still glistening with beads of moisture, as a pleasing breakfast to those I hold dear. But the wasps have challenged my harvest. There are some versions of the species who lay their eggs inside the fruit so that the hatching larvae can find nourishment as they eat their way out into the wider world. A friend of mine once bit into a fig that had been impregnated in this way and swallowed the juicy treat before glancing down and seeing the writhing, seething brood within the remaining half. How the rest of us laughed as he tried to make himself throw up!

The laugh was on me this week. The wasps have beaten me to most of the best of the crop. So now I must go out at night, when the new moon sheds hardly any light – certainly nothing to challenge the stars – and the silent mountains are the domain of the owls and the cicadas, the hedgehogs and martens, and try to block the mouth of that wasp pit. A large rock might do it. Or a massive slice of the old oak tree we were obliged to cut down three weeks ago. Seal them in! It seems so cruel. But I want to steal a friend’s recipe and serve figs topped with soft blue cheese and a toasted almond as a civil canapé before dinner. And I want to bring cold green figs to the breakfast table with a slightly vain flourish. And to wrap them in the salty local prosciutto and eat them with very cold white wine in the white hot middle of the day.

Of course you realize this means war – between me and the wasps. Who will win? Who can say? The dictionary teaches us that a fig is “a nothing,” “an excrescence on a horse’s hoof,” “a small, valueless, or contemptible thing.” I don’t buy it. And neither do the wasps. We know a treat when we see it.

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