It figgers

Food - Bee Wilson on a fruit that reaches the highs, and lows, of oysters

Figs are like oysters. They come into their own in autumn. During the first months ending in "r", you know that oysters and figs are good to eat. The Romans referred to the moment when summer truly ends as prima ficus, meaning first fig. As I write, we are in mature fig season, when the sweetest purple fruits are in the markets, ready to be draped with prosciutto or baked with honey, or eaten just as they are in a single, greedy gulp.

As I say, figs are like oysters. Sometimes they are seen as food of the rich, sometimes as food of the poor. In the days when they were slurped with Guinness, oysters were working men's grub. Now they are ostentatious little status symbols, pearls for the gullet. And so with figs. In their fresh form, when the finest species and specimens are on offer, figs are a luxury fruit, each one transported in its own cushioned container. The Greeks saw them as "more precious than gold". Ancient nobles gorged on Smyrna figs, and used them - ultimate decadence - to fatten the liver of geese for the table. Yet Pliny called dried figs the food of slaves. Often, the dried fig has been so ubiquitous among Mediterranean and Arab peoples that it almost replaced bread as a staple food. Figs are schizophrenic fruits, both common and rare. When dried, they can appear wizened and ordinary. When fresh, they can appear ripe like no other fruit, bulging sacs of tiny pips.

Again, figs are like oysters. Why? Because both foods are somehow ineffably obscene. One can see why so many people have insisted over the years that both are aphrodisiac foods, even if, as Alan Davidson has recently argued, there is no such thing as a true aphrodisiac. Figs bring out the coyness in wordy gastronomes, provoking the knowing epithets "voluptuous" and "sensuous" to trip across the tongue. It is hard to put your finger on the sexual meaning of figs. Or rather, it is all too easy to put your finger on it, squeeze it and feel vaguely embarrassed as the seeds tumble out, but it is much trickier to explain your embarrassment.

Numerous cultures have associated figs with fertility, from North Africa to Greece to India, and have revered the fig tree as a symbol of peace and life. But the lubriciousness of the fig sometimes seems to rest on something more blatant than abstract fertility. Countless observers have seen in the fig, as in the oyster, the pattern of human genitals. They just haven't been able to decide which sex is depicted. In some parts of the world, the female sexual organs are called figs, as evinced by the look of the open fruit. Yet in Japan, candied figs have been served as phallic totems. The Arab association of figs with male genitals was so strong that the original word for "figs" is no longer a polite description. If you wish to refer to the fruit itself, you must say khrif, or autumn.

Some have compared the white sap of the fig tree to milk. The Roman writer Ennius invoked "sweetness-bearing figs, milky from full udders". This kind of anthropomorphic comparison is all very well, but it seems to me to depend on having really good figs at your disposal. When figs are bad, which is often, they are nothing like udders. When underripe, their vase-shaped exterior is tough and unpleasant to chew. The inside, which is actually composed of about 1,500 minuscule fruit, not seeds as we suppose, can taste pithy, rough and unyielding. Such fruits are highly indigestible and, as the medic Galen said, can cause pain and wind.

Figs are like oysters. When they are good, they are as excellent as any food can be. But when they are bad, they put you off food altogether.

This article first appeared in the 09 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Schools that teach children to lie