Figs and Brie

I wanted to make something simple with figs.

I had been thinking about Calamara figs from the sun-drenched orchards along the Aegean Sea. Those rings of light brown, wrinkled fruit, tied together with twine had appeared one day in the produce aisle.

They had been haunting me ever since.

When I came back the next day they were gone. I am not the only inhabitant of the archipelago island Peoria craving figs.

No problem. The black Mission figs would do. As I walked over to the aisle I thought about their soft, tar black shapes piled in the bag.

A hint of their darkly sweet flavor grazed over my palate.

My pace quickened.  

Back in my kitchen, simple meant stacking one fig on a triangle of pita and topping it with a velvety slice of rich Brie. All ten stacks were put on a white porcelain platter and baked in a hot oven until the brie melted. Just enough to drape over the figs and no more.

Before they went on the table, I drizzled them with wildflower honey that a beekeeper friend had given us.

As I feasted, I marveled at how something so simple could be so fulfilling and delicious.

But was this simple?

Yes, collecting up these four ingrediencies, piling them one atop another, and placing them in the oven for a few minutes was childishly simple.  

But the ingrediencies themselves were not.

They were full of complexity in many ways.

The fig’s sophistication comes from its 10,000-year history of human cultivation, longer than any other farm plant. In some strange way, I tasted the wisdom and the work imparted into that fruit from every civilization that had grown it.  

What an amazing result from all that history – a soft, subtly sweet interior texture surrounded by a firm, chewy exterior, rich with notes of leather and fermented fruit. 

The pita has that long history of perfection, too. Five-thousand years of harvesting the windblown fields of grain and grinding them down to a fine dust under the weight of the mill stone. Countless generations of bakers have worked the flour into dough and transformed it in the charring heat of the wood-burning, brick oven.

Change is inevitable over time, and even the smallest of variations have shifted the dry, grainy character of this ancient bread.      

Then there is brie. The youthful, medieval addition to my simple stack of flavors.      

What I would give to meet the monks that thought an invisible race of bacteria awash in a universe of cow’s milk could change that bland, white liquid into the essences of rich, soft, smooth and satisfying.

Brie, a magical relic, no doubt, but it cannot compare to what was drizzled on top of it.

The ultimate in strange complexity: the honeybee and its honey.    

Who can relate to the mind of the honeybee? They are a different form of life. Their social construct is incomprehensible to us. Hundreds working in an ever-shifting swarm, one on top of another. All born into an exact communal role with work that never changes, never varies.  

The geometrical architecture of their home, rows and rows of self-made, hexagonal compartments, is of no comfort to our human personalities. Yet that sticky, viscus, slow motion sugar that they make and store in those tessellated wax-walled chambers is loved by most and known by all.

Honey itself has a multitude of fascinating properties for being something we can eat.

It can crystalize spontaneously and conduct electricity. It is a natural insulator of heat and never freezes solid. When it is motionless it can be firm, when stirred it becomes a liquid. Bacteria cannot grow in honey, and if kept dry, will last for thousands of years.

It is a supersaturated, supercooled, Newtonian liquid that every branch of physical science stands in awe of.   

For millions of years, before man even had a thought about cooking, these tiny winged workers had been making this incredible food.

I am happy they did. That detail of added, intense sweetness gave just the right level of complexity to my simple stack of flavors.

Nothing is as simple as it looks at the beginning.

But in this case, that is a very good thing.       

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