The summer Philippe decided to make fig jam was the summer I couldn’t have any.
My husband brought two handfuls of figs into the kitchen and deposited them beside the sink. Teenagers Lolo and Phoebe followed him with their own fistfuls. The fresh sweetness of the fruits, plucked from Bellevue’s own figuier, wafted across the kitchen, where I was busy making coffee.
“We should make jam,” Lolo said to her father, taking up a strand of conversation they’d bandied about for a couple years and, with this season’s bumper crop, had revisited in the last week. Lolo chose a particularly luscious fig from the haul and bit into it.
“I’ve never seen figs this big before,” Phoebe said, bringing one to her mouth. My niece was visiting from Los Angeles. She was keen to partake in all the Côte d’Azur’s culture, fresh figs playing a starring role in my book.
“Do we have jars?” Philippe asked. Before I could answer, he declared, “We’ll make confiture de figues this afternoon!” He pronounced the phrase for “fig jam” with particular French zest.
“They’re so GOOD!” Lolo gushed, grinning at me with fig flesh still in her mouth. She picked through the pile for another perfect specimen.
I’m fig mad. Self-confessed. It was I who insisted we plant Bellevue’s figuier 13 years ago, shortly after purchasing this home. My conviction came despite concerns from our wise gardener that a fig tree was a huge water-hog. Over the years, as our figuier has sucked water, burgeoned, and produced, my fascination has grown, too. I’ve written vignettes about our fig tree from the moment it began to produce, and as it continues to do so. I’ve linked figs to one of Bellevue’s wartime occupants. I’ve posted photos of our figuier’s fruits on Instagram.
Years ago, in the vaults of Antibes’ municipal archives, my fig madness fell into place – as if it was suddenly justified and meant-to-be. Edouard Muterse, the man who built Bellevue, was a fig-guy himself. He’d nurtured groves of figuiers. He and his ancestors had dried their fruits in a séchoir, a drying shed, at their ancestral home back in the 1800s, if not earlier. By insisting on planting Bellevue’s figuier, I was fulfilling the next chapter in a predetermined story arc.
The fact that there were so many ripe figs left in Bellevue’s kitchen this season showed what a dent I normally made in our pile. There also was an unusual abundance: We’d recently spied a couple pulling figs from the branches of our figuier that tumbled outside our fence. They collected their find in large, plastic sacks. In this moment of bounty, then, Philippe searched up a recipe for confiture de figues. Late that same afternoon, he gathered Lolo and Phoebe in the kitchen.
There was chopping and stirring (with copious amounts of sugar and a bit of lemon juice), and finally stewing. Later there would be sterilization and jarring. I mostly stayed out of the kitchen, except to grab a couple photos. Making fig jam was the perfect dad time, non? But my gang refused to keep me out of this loop.
“It’s so good!” Lolo said, dancing up behind me on Bellevue’s terrace.
“That’s great,” I said. It was half-hearted praise, and she knew it.
“I mean, not to taunt you or anything, but actually it’s so good!”
Phoebe followed my daughter to the terrace. “It’s so good!” she parroted. My niece was typically more considerate out of her genuine good nature – or possibly because I was her aunt rather than her mother.
“It really is so good!” Phoebe said again before softening the blow. “I’m so sad for you!”
“I’m not,” Lolo said. “More for us!”
There had never been an issue. I adored figs, and I suspect it was partly because of my ardour that Philippe and Lolo also decided our annual harvest was heavenly rather than merely desirable. Last summer when the figuier’s bounty arrived – for that is how it comes, all at once in a tidal wave – we ate figs like there’d be no tomorrow.
The next morning, I woke up staring at the ceiling and wondering why I’d slept on my mouth. Just as now and then you find a dead arm in your bed that is attached to your own body, and then you move that arm with your good hand and the blood starts flowing again, I was sure in the past night I had slept on my mouth.
As that fog disintegrated, the numbness of the flesh around my mouth persisted. There was no visible distortion, so I dressed and went downstairs for a cup of coffee. Coffee is acidic on an empty stomach, so in holding off breakfast that August morning until Lolo appeared (as Philippe had gone golfing), I picked a fig from the previous day’s harvest, rinsed it, and ate it. I then began to consider what had caused this thickness around my mouth. Did I eat anything unusual? A suspicion fluttered through my mind. When Lolo eventually appeared, I plucked another fig from the kitchen tray, rinsed it, and sliced a section for me. My tongue began to fizz. I rinsed my mouth and reminded Lolo where the closest pharmacy was. Fortunately I didn’t need it, though the Velcro feeling inside my mouth didn’t disappear for a good week.
I’d never had an allergy. Figs weren’t a big deal in Canada, where we spend most months, so I only mentioned the freak incident to my doctor this springtime. She sent me pronto to an allergist, who pricked my forearms with 60 common allergens. No reaction.
“Come back first thing Thursday,” he said, “and bring me four fresh figs.”
It was early May. I canvased a large section of Toronto to find fresh figs and, eventually successful, returned to the allergist Thursday morning with two cartons. I’d bring the extra figs home, I reckoned, or if they’d strangely become poison, I’d thank the doc for the urgency of his care. Seated at a long table in the allergist’s board room, another woman and I drooled into our paper towels. She was sucking on homecooked lobster, and I worked on a slice of fig, as if it was hard candy. (We’d agreed beforehand that hers was the worse job.) After five minutes of sucking and drooling, the other woman was told to begin eating. My test was complete. My fizzling mouth and I were ushered into a surveillance room, and the allergist kept the rest of my figs.
Officially barred from my beloved figuier this summer, I am inundated from all sides. A couple days after the homemade confiture de figues went into its jars, I found Philippe in the kitchen after a golf game.
“Look what I got on the 9th hole,” he said. He was making himself a cappuccino, and beside an empty saucer I spied something wrapped in cling film. It looked deliciously homemade. “Fig bread!” He grinned. “Oops – you can’t have any.”
Yeah, yeah. I was getting used to the teasing. “Guess what’s on the cover of the latest InfoVille magazine?” I said to him. I’d just picked up a copy of Antibes’ free, what’s-on bulletin from a dispenser in town. I went to fetch the magazine and slapped it down on the counter beside the forbidden fig bread.
The central image of the magazine cover was no surprise. Monet and a gazillion others have immortalized that particular angle of Antibes’ old town. This photo, though, was framed by branches of a figuier, its fruits plump and ready. It was so unfair.
The fig mound in Bellevue’s kitchen began to dwindle, and so did the jam made from its fruits. The game of taunting me was letting up, too, and I privately sighed relief. Momentarily. One afternoon I was minding my own business in the kitchen when Lolo’s voice rang through the living room.
“Mom, I just brought in eight more figs,” she said, entering the kitchen with the new bounty. “There were more, but they were so big I could only carry four in each hand.”
So big and beautiful and succulent. So much for extinguishing the season’s crop. I mustered motherly excitement as my daughter laid out the latest beauties on the kitchen countertop. As Lolo pointed out the fruits’ various virtues for my benefit (”This fig looks perfect!” “This one will taste like jam inside!” “Just feel this one – it’s perfectly ripe!”), a rustling sound came from the garage. Moments later, Phoebe opened the garage door leading into the kitchen. On her shoulder was a six-foot ladder.
“What are you doing?” I asked my niece.
Unlike my husband and daughter, at least this member of my family sounded apologetic.