Long Reads

The Fig Tree That Traveled Two Oceans & Three Generations

December 25, 2018
A fig is a fig is a fig. Photo by James Ransom

In the backyard of my grandparents' house on the island of Sardinia, off the western coast of Italy, there was a fig tree. There is a fig tree. It’s still there, even if bits of it live miles, oceans, continents away. A gnarled stump twists its way upward and gives way to big, dark green leaves like gecko palms. In unison they form a formidable army, a dense cloud under which hide tender and delicate fruits, summer’s final rain. The figs perch in groups of three or four, swelling at the bottoms, threatening to fissure under the weight of their juice.

Figs don't reveal their beauty to the world. They flower inward instead of outward and the rosy squiggles that populate their centers are but unopened blooms that reach for each other rather than toward you. In that, they're elusive. They don't seek approval. An amber droplet might escape a fig when its sweetness is too much to contain, but otherwise it exists to be discovered.

Where my dad grew up in Italy, most things are rugged—the people, the roads, the cheeses—and figs are no exception. Their trees line most roads and drop overripe fruit where they sit on the sidewalk collecting flies and oozing sugar.

Once, on a long walk, my grandfather reached for a branch sagging with figs and twisted off a bulging purple pouch. A small speckle of what looked like milk appeared where the fruit had been separated from the tree. He handed it to me, motioned with two nods. It was larger than my palm. I cupped it and bit into it like an apple. My first fig didn't drip down my forearms like a watermelon or stain my teeth like strawberries. It coated my lips and fingers with a honey-like syrup that lingered hours after Nonno and I had returned from our walk.

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“And can I say how much I love the imagery of this sentence: "Dreams don’t come easy in the afternoon, but I’d awake from my shade-bound slumber to the sound of branches snapping, leaves fluttering—and a soft fig hitting me on my chest with a thud (my grandfather having just tossed me the saccharine alarm clock to wake me for a game of cards)." ...I feel like I'm there instead of in an office cubicle, and my heart feels light. Loved reading this!”
— Julie
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Summers in Sardinia were always like this, slow and unintentional, full of small eating breaks.

After walks with Nonno, I'd fall into a hammock, stomach swollen with sweet-bellied figs, the only obvious summer snack in Italy. Dreams don’t come easy in the afternoon, but I’d awake from my shade-bound slumber to the sound of branches snapping, leaves fluttering—and a soft fig hitting me on my chest with a thud (my grandfather having just tossed me the saccharine alarm clock to wake me for a game of cards).


One summer, my mother’s parents, visiting from Dallas, came to stay with us at Nonno and Nonna's. They'd never seen ocean water so crystal clear, or watched herds of sheep bleat from their windows. And they’d never held figs so big you needed two hands to pry them from their branches.

As neither set of grandparents knew a word of the other's language, the four "spoke" instead in hums and gestures. With all that humming and gesturing, it wasn't uncommon for miscommunication to brew. When this happened, we bilingual grandkids would step in to smooth things out.

In the absence of language, food became an easy (and perhaps, the only) option for a back and forth between in-laws who had so much to say to each other, but so few words to say them with. Here, try this was a big one (the double nod): an extra spoonful of yogurt in the morning, a generous grating of pecorino on another's pasta. Where one side offered food, the other responded with halting thumbs up, toothy smiles, approving stomach rubs. Delicious. Eventually I taught my American grandparents to stick their pointer fingers into their cheeks and twist. Means: I like this. They'd twist until small red dots appeared on the sides of their faces.

At the end of the summer, as we packed our suitcases to fly back across the Atlantic, my Nonno shuffled into our room. He handed me something as long and as thin as my forearm, wrapped in a kitchen towel.

"Give this to your grandfather," he told me in Italian. "And make sure he plants it in his backyard as soon as he gets home."

When I turned to my other grandfather to translate, he smiled and said, "I got it."

They both looked at each other, a transcontinental understanding. We watched as my American grandfather carefully nestled the branch between the folds of his clothes.


Photo by Linda Xiao

Back home, my grandfather planted the branch in the warm Texas peat behind their house, where it sprouted from the earth like a staff. As our visit to the Mediterranean threatened to fade with time, the transplanted tree began to fruit.

Years later, that fig tree still casts a shadow across my grandparents' backyard. The fruit are not as robust as the ones that dawdle in the Sardinian sun, but they’re sweet and fleshy all the same. We gather under the branches sometimes and shake the figs to the ground, eat them with yogurt and honey drizzled on top. Summers are much longer in Dallas, so figs are a multi-month affair thanks to that tree.

They flower inward instead of outward and the rosy squiggles that populate their centers are but unopened blooms that reach for each other.

Every summer I can walk into my grandparents' kitchen and know that there's a bowl of fresh figs waiting for me on the counter. I like to sit alone and savor them with nothing more than a cloth napkin laid underneath. Even here in Texas, miles away from Sardinia, they are, for me, the only obvious summer dessert.

And I find it strange that a tree, the same tree, that once held such specific significance for me of one person and of one place—my Nonno and his island in the Mediterranean—has now been bifurcated, cloned. What was the memory of one grandfather is now the symbol of both. Their humors aren’t quite the same, and they speak in sharply different tongues. One drinks espresso, the other drip coffee. One watches football, the other baseball. Yet when I sit down to eat these figs, I know that with each of them, wherever I am, I’m eating from the same exact tree.

Do you love figs as much as I do? Let me know in the comments below.

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Valerio Farris

Written by: Valerio Farris

42 Comments

Beverly J. April 3, 2019
I so loved this story. I married into an Italian family . Both of my in-laws were imigrants from Italy. In their yard were two fig trees. One a green fig and the other a dark one. It took me many years to learn to love them. As it did the many herbs they used to flavor their food. Imy family did not use herbs at all. My dad was swedish and of course my Mother cooked to please him.
 
felice April 2, 2019
Almost in tears because of the visualization of friendship in homes in Florence with the fig tree and my first encounter with that magical fruit. I lived in Florence 24 years and everything I still do is etched by it. I am now married, live in the USA again, but we have bought a home at the sea in Nicaragua where we have found that fig trees prosper ..Turning 71 this week, I plan to plant and enjoy with friend from Florence who will visit us..I have bought fresh here, but they are not the same. thank you for the memories. I have them too of Sardegna and Sicilia and figs glorious figs!
 
Karen P. April 2, 2019
LOVED this story. Touched my heart.
 
Ashley M. April 2, 2019
WOW! This piece was a satisfying morning treat for me. I felt as though the writing was coming off of the screen and somehow transplanting me not only to Italy but to your childhood. Thank you for the delish read, I really needed that today : )))
 
Dish06 April 2, 2019
I spent my summers growing up in Italy with my grandparents. I will never forget the experience of going to my grandparents backyard and picking these glorious figs right from the tree. Those are times in your life that you are truly present in the moment and eating God's "fastfood".
 
Brenda D. April 2, 2019
I LOVE this story. Italy is on my bucket list to share with my 14 year daughter. I have just ordered cuttings. Not sure how they will survive in Georgia, but we're going to give it our best try. God Bless
 
Jane April 2, 2019
I've discovered that the leaves are edible. And the spring leaves on my old fig tree are beautiful and so welcome after a little winter in Tucson. Violet's Bakery has a wonderful recipe for spring fig leaf ice cream, if you can spare ten of those lovely leaves.
 
Derek January 26, 2019
I live in Seymour Ct. I got 30 fig trees in buckets. Who got me started was my Nona Angalina she grows 3 kinds she’s been growing some of them for 40 years . If people are interested in figs look on Facebook their is many groups just put the word “ fig “ in . U can buy cuttings on figbid.com and trees good luck
 
Derek January 26, 2019
Can I get a few cuttings
 
Ana December 27, 2018
I don’t think fig trees will survive the tough Maine winters (I so wish they would!), but I’ve been inspired to travel to Sardinia with my family. Thank you for your story, I could picture it through your words.
 
Derek January 26, 2019
They will survive the Maine winter plant it in a bucket
 
Lauren B. April 2, 2019
I have a mini brown fig in a pot for decades. It goes to summer camp and then comes inside in a place of honor in the sunniest room. Yes it is small since it is potted but we get to eat a bunch of super sweet figs! I think the variety is Petit Nigra. I am in zone 5, NYS.
 
Carla S. December 27, 2018
One ocean and one sea. Sardinia is in the Mediterranean Sea.
 
FrugalCat June 26, 2018
A lovely story, but I am going to be the stick in the mud here. Importation of non-native species of plants (or animals) is not a joke. There is a reason that you fill out the customs form when you re-enter America, certifying you are not bringing in plants, seeds, or fruits. If you have an importation permit, you only get it after taking classes and tests about non-natives and what they can do to the environment. I am glad that the fig tree is producing figs in America with no ill effects and did not invade the native habitat. Before anyone smuggles anything to a new environment, I beg you to think of the impact it will have on the native plants, animals and climate.
 
Debra W. June 7, 2018
The bonus to this exquisitely written story of love and family is Grumpy (Dallas grandpa) has generously shared that branch to people who have loved the figs around his table. You come from excellent stock Valerio. Both of your grandfathers understood the true meaning of paying it forward.
 
Eric K. June 8, 2018
V, I love that his name is Grumpy.
 
Anton G. June 5, 2018
Hey Valerio, others have commented and I would be very interested in a cutting as well. The story behind the tree is amazing!
 
Julie June 5, 2018
Such a beautiful story! And can I say how much I love the imagery of this sentence: "Dreams don’t come easy in the afternoon, but I’d awake from my shade-bound slumber to the sound of branches snapping, leaves fluttering—and a soft fig hitting me on my chest with a thud (my grandfather having just tossed me the saccharine alarm clock to wake me for a game of cards)." ...I feel like I'm there instead of in an office cubicle, and my heart feels light. Loved reading this!
 
Pablo C. June 4, 2018
I live to bake with figs.
 
HalfPint June 4, 2018
I grew up in Western CT, in Fairfield County, among a lot of Portuguese and Italian families. One of my Italian neighbors had a fig tree that apparently was brought from Italy with Grandpa. He loved that tree. Somehow he manage to make it thrive in the fickle New England weather. When they retired and sold the house, the listing was explicit: "Fig tree not included". I don't recall where they moved, maybe Florida as most New Englanders tended to do. But the fig tree definitely went with them.
 
RubyDu June 4, 2018
Beautiful story! I'd love to see a picture of one or both fig trees!
 
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Valerio F. June 4, 2018
Good point, I'll have to take one next time I visit either of them!
 
Lisa S. June 4, 2018
Beautiful, Valerio.
 
Fran M. June 3, 2018
I lived in Sardinia for 2 years. Thanks for the memories, I also loved the figs there.
 
Author Comment
Valerio F. June 4, 2018
They're definitely some of the best!
 
John R. June 3, 2018
Figs are the one fruit that should be eaten from the tree. They do not store or ship when ripe, way too soft. So you must have a tree or know where one is. And like the story they grow easily from cuttings.....I have about 40 different kinds.
 
Pattie M. April 2, 2019
Hello John, You must have many tips on growing if you have so many varieties. I struggle with one small tree that needs to move to a new spot for more sun and deeper soil (sitting on a shallow rock slab). Central Texas is my locale. Any thoughts on when and how to move? Thank you. And thank you to the writer who touched my heart with this beautifully written piece about the love that surrounds food memories.