Fig’n delicious: Mangawhai orchard gets fig growing down to an art

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16 March 2022, NZ: Striking out into horticulture was a big step for Anthea and her partner Julie Glamuzina. What began as a desire to bring fresh figs to the tables of Kiwis back in early 2008 has turned into a successful venture 14 years later. HELENA O’NEILL speaks to Anthea Raven about the growth of their orchard and the duo’s commitment to bringing fresh figs to Kiwis.

On a 1.25-hectare block in Northland’s rural Mangawhai, Anthea and her partner Julie Glamuzina run the orchard, Fig’n Delicious.

The idea to grow figs came from the couple’s desire to expand on the experience of eating and cooking the fruit – beyond dried fruit imports – and to give Kiwi consumers the experience of fresh figs.

It was a leap into the unknown with both women only having academic backgrounds. A free horticulture course run by NorthTec helped build some basic knowledge, further backed up by support and advice from friends with experience in horticulture and organic methods.

The couple also visited other fig growers who willingly shared their experience and ideas, Anthea says.

We had three things going for us — we knew we were really hard workers; we were really tough physically and we could learn and build knowledge,” she says.

They were also of the mind that it was better to pay someone to teach them skills, like pruning, instead of getting someone else in to do the job for them.

Fig growing expert Eric Cairns of the NZ Tree Crops Association was a key resource to the duo in the beginning, propagating over 300 fig trees for their orchard.

“He’s the sort of go-to person for figs,” says Anthea. “He is so willing to share knowledge, he is fantastic.”

Co-owner Julie Glamuzina during the fig harvest.

In 2008, Anthea and Julie began preparing the soil before planting 150 fig trees two years later, with the remaining 150 planted in 2012.

Today, they grow three varieties of what is known as the ‘common fig’ — French Sugar, San Piero and Adriatic.

The French Sugar has a sweet pale amber flesh with a honeyed flavour that makes it very popular to eat fresh, while the San Piero has a medium to large sized fruit with an oblong shaped neck that shines in dishes. The Adriatic – a medium sized fruit – has a greenish skin and a juicy strawberry flavour. However, late season Adriatic figs struggle to get enough sunlight to produce enough natural sugars.

“We thought we were being very clever,” Anthea says. “We were looking at commercially making the most of the season, choosing a fig that fruits early, one that fruits in the middle and one that fruits last. We get lots of figs on the Adriatic trees, but we don’t have the heat in the sun to create the sugars and to ripen them.”

After admitting that their planting of Adriatic trees wasn’t working, they went about selecting one variety of fig that they knew did well and planted it in just one part of the orchard. They also planted the odd tree here and there so that if something went wrong, they knew whether it was a variety problem or an environmental one.

“It was a simplistic scientific method,” Anthea says.

“I ripped out 50 [Adriatic] and have propagated with French Sugar [now]. I’ve given 30 an opportunity to regenerate and look more enthusiastic. But I will be propagating some more French Sugar because they’re the ones that do really well.

“The French Sugar figs are a beautiful fruit to put on your table to eat, they’re stunning. The San Piero are an interesting fruit that will take some baked methods. They almost hollow out like an avocado. They’re really good for creating dishes, while the French Sugar [figs] are great with a bit of cheese and wine.”

With considerably more experience and knowledge under their belts, Anthea and Julie now use organic methods on the orchards – something Anthea says is not easy and remains challenging. But the orchard rewards them for their hard work, continuing to produce beautiful fruit.

The harvest season begins mid-February and usually runs for six to eight weeks.

Figs do not ripen off the tree, so they have to be picked each day. Once picked, they stop producing the sugars that make them so sweet and delectable to eat.

Harvesting is labour-intensive as figs have to be picked by hand. Pickers use wooden stakes with hooks on the end to pull down the higher branches, before cutting the fruit off at the stem where it connects with the branch, to protect the soft outer layer of the fig from damage.

“Fig trees are very pliant so you can do that otherwise you would leave some beautiful figs up there unpicked,” Anthea says.

Workers start handpicking figs at the orchard.

Selecting a ripened fig is an art form and one that comes with experience, she says.

As a deep, rosy colour, or a sagging stem have not shown to be good indicators, it is more reliable to go by touch. The softness of the fig will tell the picker if the sugars are present. Splits on a fig may indicate maturation and that the fig is bursting with sugars, ready to eat. A spongy feel indicates ripening has yet to occur, and that fig should be left on the tree for the next day or two. Once picked, the figs need to be kept refrigerated and eaten within two to three days of harvest.

Like most growers around the country, Anthea and Julie have also felt the pinch of Covid-19, with restrictions forcing Anthea, Julie and a family member to complete all the fig harvesting themselves last season.

“We were down on volumes last year although we had a lot of turnover,” says Anthea. “We had a lot of interest and we got rid of them all.

I don’t think we have ever been able to meet demand.”

There was a dip in trade with restaurants, cafés and the local farmers’ market too.

“Before Covid-19, I used to go to the farmers’ market each Saturday. I just couldn’t supply enough. We would totally sell out. Because they have such a short shelf-life, we would rely upon people coming to the orchard to buy them and would also do deliveries to Auckland. During Covid-19 restrictions, we didn’t go to the market.”

For now, Anthea forgoes the farmers’ market, finding it easy enough to sell figs onsite at the orchard, along with orders via phone, email and Facebook.

“Each year we’ve got more and more traffic on the website.”

A lot of the orchard’s bulk buying customers are residents from the Middle East and China who want to buy in respective lots of 10–15kg and 60kg at a time. Some families like to make a trip out of it, wandering around the orchard and picking the figs themselves.

While most of the orchard’s figs are sold fresh, “seconds fruit” gets vacuum sealed and frozen, while Anthea also makes a fig and ginger jam, lime and fig Indian-style chutney and poached figs. These also feature in the orchard’s “Figgy Morning Teas” alongside Coffig and fig leaf tea.

The orchard’s figs feature on the menu of a local restaurant too, dehydrated and dipped in chocolate by local chocolatier Bennetts, and are now being trialled in a beer at a Waikato brewery.

Anthea is a huge believer in the health benefits of figs, from the fresh fruit to tea made from both fresh and dried leaves.

“Figs really should be a superfood; they’ve got so much goodness in them.”

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