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Nancy Leson gives a fig about, well, figs
In Seattle, Bill Farhat grows the figs that remind him of his homeland in Lebanon. Now friends and family share the fruits of his considerable labor.
Seattle Times food writer
STICKS AND STONES may break your bones — unless you’re Bill Farhat. For him, sticks become fig trees, stones terraced walkways, his yard a Pacific Northwest Eden.
Farhat, 65, was a boy in Lebanon when he first stuck a fig shoot into soil at his family home in Kfarchima. “Two or three years later, that branch became a tree,” recalls the retired Arabic professor whose garden of earthly delights is ringed with grape leaves, planted with Persian plums and packed with his prized fig trees — 35 at last count.
At 22, he left Lebanon to study at the University of Washington and, later, with his wife, Ferial, raised their children in Lake City. Over 30 years he’s tended the hillside above a ravine, transforming a serpentine path into a lush landscape.
When people say “I don’t give a fig,” he shakes his head. “I don’t understand that. Me? I give a fig!’ ”
Come midsummer, the fruit of his labor is a treat for family, friends and lucky fig-lovers. As a connoisseur, he prefers fresh figs eaten out-of-hand, though everyone adores them baked year-round (with frozen fruit) into buttery fig bars.
When his children were young and he was busy teaching, “I didn’t have time to grow figs,” he says. But then, as now, “I made time” — humping rocks and pavers, mounds of homemade compost and Mother Nature’s tears of joy, recycled in rain barrels.
A Middle Eastern MacGyver, he’s trained his trees with wire hangers, castoff counterweights and fan belts, bending branches for easy harvest. He hangs Mardi Gras beads and shiny CDs to ward-off peckish birds, and old garden hose spray-painted to resemble snakeskin — to frighten hungry rodents.
The fig family is finicky, he says. Plant a black Mission on the wrong site, and severe weather will kill it. “Plant a brown Turkey in too much shade and it lives but doesn’t give.”
He pampers four varieties, “black and brown and green and yellow,” the latter his sweet Celeste, whose white flesh, in his wife’s hands, makes a beautiful blond fig jam.
Farhat saves highest praise for the Desert King, whose red-fleshed fruit is honey on his tongue. “Those are the king” hereabouts, he says, bearing fruit as big as a kiwi.
They’re also the figs he grew up eating in Lebanon.
Standing under a canopy of green, he says, “People think I’m crazy,” spending time planting, pruning and propagating. “But I made myself a paradise I enjoy. Is that a sin?”
Ferial’s Fab Fig-Bar Crumble
For the filling
½ cup sugar
8-10 fresh figs, diced (a heaping cup)
½ cup finely chopped walnuts
In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, figs and walnuts. Heat until it boils, then set aside to cool.
For the crumb crust/topping
1 cup dark brown sugar
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
½ cup vegetable oil
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon orange blossom water (available at Middle Eastern grocers) or substitute ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1¾ cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. To make the crust/topping, in a large mixing bowl cream the brown sugar, butter and oil. Stir in the salt, orange blossom water (or vanilla extract), flour and oats and blend thoroughly. Spread slightly more than half the mixture into the bottom of an ungreased 11-by-7-by-2-inch baking pan (pressing into the pan with your fingers).
2. Spread the fig filling over the bottom layer of crust mixture, then “crumble” the remaining crust mixture over the top, pressing lightly. It’s OK if fig filling peeks through. Bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Cool before slicing.
— Ferial Farhat
Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times’ food writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ken Lambert is a Times staff photographer.