The calendar might say ‘February’, but for passionate foodies and especially producers, this month is definitely ‘Figuary’. Baking Business catches up with Leppington Valley Farm’s Rocco in between checking crops to delve deep into the sweetest, most sugary fruit to grace a cheese platter or cake.
Tell us a bit about Leppington Valley Farm:
We’re on a small acreage out in Leppington, 50 minutes southwest of Sydney. We’ve been here for about 40 years now and we’ve slowly grown the farm to two main crops—figs and prickly pears. We’ve got quite a few varieties of fig trees; Black Genoa is probably the most common variety, and we’ve got a few others—White Genoa, White Adriatic, Brown Turkey and Preston Prolific.
When are figs in season/when do you harvest them?
The main crop is about to start. There are two crops every year; a small crop in December—the Breba crop—where the figs grow on last season’s wood. It’s a small crop, but you usually get bigger fruit. And then there’s a little break and the main crop from the new stems starts around the end of January and goes for about three months, give or take on the weather conditions.
What are the challenges of growing figs?
Weather is the biggest factor, soil conditions and pests—we get all sorts of pests here. We’re not undercover, we’re not in glass houses and we don’t have shade covers for them—they’re grown traditionally. Conditions have changed over the past few years. Climate conditions have changed, we’ve noticed, and it’s much more difficult to grow them now. And habitat—we never used to get flying foxes or bats that would attack the fruit but now, it’s become a real problem. Probably in the last 10 years. We’re not a big farm though, and the cost of netting, we don’t make enough to cover them, so we grin and bear it. We can control the smaller bugs like fruit fly, which are a real problem in New South Wales.
Other than that, they need nutrients in the ground and they need water every day if it’s dry. There’s too much water at the moment and my leaves are turning yellow. That’s the topography; if I had better draining soil I wouldn’t have a problem. Because I’ve got clay underneath, the water retains and plays havoc on the roots. The leaves turn yellow and if they start to drop off, you lose your fruit. They’re very delicate. Humidity is another problem, similar to if it’s continually raining, because the fig is like an inverted flower and they absorb a lot more water than say, an orange or a lemon.
How labour-intensive is the harvesting and packaging process?
Very. There’re no machines to do it, it’s all hand picking. You’ve got to pick every day and get them into the shed to the cool room. You need to be able to cool them down because they keep ripening. A semi-colour fruit fig today in warm conditions would probably be overripe tomorrow—that’s how quickly they mature. Once they start changing colour, that’s it, you’ve really got to watch how got it’s going to be in the day. They’re a very temperamental fruit.
How much do you produce each season?
Quite a few tonnes!
Where do your figs go?
Mostly local. Predominantly we used to serve Flemington Markets in Sydney, but now we do farmgate sales and a lot of our fruit gets sold in the shed. We’ve become pretty well-known in the Sydney base and fortunately through that, we don’t really need to go to the markets. Although this year is looking like a bigger crop, so I might take some to Flemington Markets. We get a lot of people coming through.
Leppington Valley has an offering of fig-based baked goods, tell me about them:
We do a lot of value adding; fig jam is our predominant value-adding product. You get lots of seconds and damaged fruit, and rather than throwing it out, we put it in a pot and make jam out of it. We do caramelised balsamics, chocolate-covered figs, fig and nut wraps, fig and pistachio biscotti, and the girls will make a fig and lemon cake because we’ve got a little café in the shed now too. A lot of people come from near and far and want coffee, and that’s another section to the business. It’s more to do, but we have a few staff to help us out.
In your opinion, what is the best way to enjoy a fig?
Fresh off the tree. The best quality fig, you will not find at Woolies or Coles. The most beautiful-tasting fig is so plump and lush that the skin will tear. Most people will think it’s a seconds-quality fruit, and technically it is—the supermarkets won’t accept it because it won’t last as long. But when you see a tear in the skin of a fig, that will tell you that it is sugarised to the max, it has grown to its full potential and it’s at the peak of its flavour. It’s plump and lush, and the skin will almost tear off on your fingers when you touch it.