A tree full of ripe figs is a testament to the success of mutualism. Without the wasp, the fig tree would not be pollinated, and without the fig tree, the wasp would have no breeding ground. Like the popular song linking love and marriage - you can't have one without the other.
The fig, unlike the apricot and plum trees on our property, does not burst into bloom in the spring, but forms its green globes directly on the ends of the branches. The flower is actually internal, and requires an insect to enter the fruit cavity to pollinate it. There are specific fig wasps that nature has designed to do this task, but they only work as active pollinators for the fig in exchange for a place to lay their eggs. The biological barter system works for the benefit of both parties. The eggs of the wasp hatch as larvae inside the flower, eat one seed from the fruit, emerge as adults and fly off to pollinate other fig trees.
A recent study conducted at Cornell University revealed that if the friendly exchange of services breaks down, there are consequences. When the wasp lay its eggs inside the flower without bothering to collect pollen, the fig tree drops the fruit to the ground and the insect's offspring do not survive. Charlotte Jander, the lead author of the research paper explains the phenomenon as a kind of natural policing. "Sanctions seem to be a necessary force in keeping this and other mutually beneficial relationships on track when being part of a mutualism is costly. In our study we saw less cheating when sanctions were stronger."
Fig compote and cheese
Reading the latest news reports of British indignation as Argentina imposes sanctions on the movement of ships between the mainland and Las Malvinas, I think government leaders should take time to contemplate the fig tree, the wasp and the wisdom of mutual co-operation. Britain has forged ahead with oil drilling off the coast of the islands, while refusing to attend UN meetings aimed at settling the crucial issue of sovereignty. Rights to oil are dependent on a bilateral agreement that benefits both Argentina and Britain. Clearly, you can't have one without the other.
While pondering the world's political problems, I chopped a big bowl of figs and poured in a bottle of Balbo Tempranillo 2008 as a marinade. A diced onion, a bit of sugar and some grated orange peel were added to the figs the next day and the mixture was boiled until thick and jammy. Cristina and Gordon, please take note: Argentine fig compote is best served with a slice of old English Stilton. A bottle of Balbo costs 8.75 pesos at Vea supermarket.
We have one old fig tree on our property which is still producing wonderful fruit. Fresh figs are a delicious treat whether enjoyed straight from the tree or cooked in foil on the barbecue. Last February, just prior to leaving for Canada to attend my daughter's wedding, I spent an afternoon preserving the abundant harvest in heavy syrup.
As this year's figs are fattening on the ends of the branches, we are down to our last jar of preserves in the cupboard. Today I took a few from the final jar and mashed them with onions, a bit of red pepper and capers to make a fig confit for our grilled salmon. The Greeks used to feed figs to athletes prior to Olympic events, to boost speed and stamina. Since the fig is 50% natural sugar, this would be the equivalent of eating a power bar before a marathon.
We paired the salmon menu with Rama Caida Sidra Demi-Sec as an alternative to wine. Rama Caida cider is made right here in our neighbourhood by the Martinez family, who founded the company in 1949. Their bodega produces a line of non-alcoholic sparkling fruit drinks as well as artesanal wines and cider. The demi-sec is made from local apples and pears and is a bubbly, refreshing, citrusy beverage.
A bottle of Rama Caida cider can be purchased for 4.73 pesos at Vea supermarket.