In many parts of England, figs or fig based desserts where eaten at various points in Lent. For instance in the Lancashire districts of Blackburn and Burnley it was usual for people to visit friends and relatives on the forth (Mothering Sunday) and fifth sunday in Lent respectively, where they would celebrate this event by eating "fag" (dilect for "fig") pie. In other regions this was observed on the sixth sunday in Lent (Palm Sunday), known locally as "Fig Sunday".
Why these dates are associated with figs is a little more complex. Obviously there are biblical connections with figs during this part of the liturgical calender. On his way into Jerusalem, Jesus took time to curse a fig tree that did not bear fruit for him (it was the wrong season it seems). However, it does seem rather bizarre to honour Christ's statement "May no man hereafter eat fruit of thee any more for ever", by eating copious amounts of the fruit in question. The fact that the actual date of the various fig festivals varies from region to region in Britain also suggests that if may not be that strongly connected with Palm Sunday after all.
Fig festivals are relatively common in Europe, often they are associated with the harvest of the new crop or the consumption of the first dried figs of the new crop. Obviously the latter situation is not the case in the cooler northern climate of Britian. But in areas where they do grow, they are highly prized. In addition to be relatively drought resistant and heavy bearers of fruit, figs an excellent source of calories. Knowing that you have another years worth of a food staple is in the storehouse is definately worth celebrating.
In the Roman world the most significant fig festival was know as Nonae Caprotinae (7th of July, old calender), which celebrated Juno Caprotina. In this aspect of Juno, fertility rites were celebrated by women. Both goats (hence "Caprotina", as "caper" means"male goat") and figs are ancient symbols of fertility and eroticism, goats by virtue of their amorous natures and figs due to the abundance of seeds and the appearance of the fruit. In modern Italy, "fica" (the fruit of the fig) is still impolite slang for female genitalia for this reason.
So where does this leave us in terms the good people of Burnley tucking into their fag pie during Lent? Could it be that this region still secretly celebrates pagan rituals in the back hills, doing the full Wickerman bit, cavorting about in goat skins while making terribly inappropriate comments about figs? Sadly, the truth is nearly always not as exciting as the imagination (or as puerile for that matter). Fig seeds are relatively common in archeological finds from Britain from the Roman period onwards. Dried figs store well, are easy to transport and due to their famously laxative natures, the seeds tend to end up in exactly the right sort of damp, anaerobic conditions that aid in their preservation. In a culture that craved sweetness but lack the later abundance of sugar, they are in fact an obvious trade item. Although they were highly desirable, they are likely to have been expensive and for most people, they are likely to have been sampled only on special and festive occasions. While Lent is associated with austerity in food consumption, the flip side of this is that indulgences and treats taken within this period are all the more appreciated. Most recipes have a finite lifespan, however some classes of food preparations last better then others. People leave their home towns and regions, their everyday domestic food traditions are lost, but festival foods tend to me maintained in communal collective memory and so can survive for longer then in usual with an purely domestic recipes. In addition to this, Lancashire and surrounding regions seems to have preserved many more food ways and traditions then is typical then in most parts of the UK, so prehaps all these factors are reasons why we have this tradition of festive fig eating in this part of the country.
8 oz chopped dried figs (rehydrated overnight)
2 eggs (beaten)
4 oz suet
4 oz brown sugar
6 oz breadcrumbs
1 large tablespoon golden syrup
Butter a basin very well. Mix all ingredients and added milk until a soft dropping consitency is reached. Add to basin and tie top with pleated, buttered foil. Boil for 2.5 hours. Serve with custard.
This is one of a range of fig pies or puddings made in the region, this recipe was adapted from Joan Poulson's "Old Lancashire Recipes". While this is a traditional recipe, It would be better with the addition of a pinch ginger, salt and maybe walnuts or pecans.