Giving a fig about farming in Malibu

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There seems to be little middle ground about figs — people are either indifferent or passionate about them. If your family once hailed from the Mediterranean basin, loving figs comes naturally. If, however, you were raised in the East or Midwest and discovered the fruit only in its canned form, well … no wonder. And, although Alan Cunningham usually encounters only committed fig lovers at his six-acre Fig Tree Ranch (also known as the Vital Zuman Farm), off PCH near Heathercliff, he, like many, believes figs are on a roll these days.

One reason is the availability of fresh figs just about everywhere now, at least for a few weeks during the year. Because of their fragile nature, fresh figs make up only 5 percent of the market, but the difference between them and the ubiquitous dried fig is as dramatic as that between a fresh peach and peach leather. Another reason for the fig’s burgeoning popularity is its evangelism by leading chefs around America; call it fusion, nouvelle, or California cuisine, the fig is a natural for the new cooking with its fresh, lighter spin and intensified flavors.

Figs have been known and rhapsodized about since pre-Biblical times. In California, the early Franciscan missionaries brought figs along with Christianity, planting them at the Mission San Diego in 1769. Those figs, now called “Black Missions,” were California’s only crop until the middle of the last century when immigrants introduced other varieties of the several hundred kinds of figs. Figs were once — a couple generations ago — a much larger industry in the state, centered around Fresno where thousands acres of farmland were devoted to cultivating figs, primarily for canning and drying. The cost and unpredictability of fig farming was and still is a problem; Nabisco, maker of the Fig Newton for generations, expanded the line five years ago not by making more cookies with expensive dried figs, but with jam made from other fruits.

So much for a history lesson. The best way to learn about figs or indulge an existing passion is easy for Malibuites. Although the crop was seven weeks late because of the cool summer, most of the Fig Tree Ranch’s 23 varieties from its 150 trees are coming in now and should continue to be available through December. And, as much as he likes selling figs, as well as the melons, tomatoes, and other produce raised on the farm (including “trophy” pumpkins weighing several hundred pounds), Cunningham loves talking fig lore.

“We pick the figs to be eaten the same day you buy them,” he says. “You really can’t prepick a fig, because they don’t ripen after they’re picked. Like strawberries, some just start to spoil.” The most popular figs he sells are the Black and Red Mission varieties and the dwarf Chiquita. “The rarest is our Strawberry Coconut Chiquita,” he says. “It has a pronounced strawberry taste with a coconut aftertaste from the latex in the skin.” Among the other popular varieties sold at Fig Tree Ranch are the rare striped Tiger fig, the huge China White (“Many Italians eat it with bread,” he says), the Adriatic with its vivid red, strawberry-tasting center and the familiar Brown Turkey. All the produce is grown without pesticides or chemicals, watered from the Cunningham’s chlorine-free, 300-foot well, and fertilized with steer manure and truckloads of mulch from local tree-trimmers.

If the figs at the ranch are seductive, so is the way the ranch is run. Beth Lutz, a part-time employee who laughingly describes herself as a “migrant worker from Baltimore,” got her job by baking a rhubarb pie for the Cunninghams. And Alice, Cunningham’s 87-year-old mother, also works every day and makes the jams, jellies and the sensational ketchup sold alongside the produce.

We encountered Alice recently as she was picking mulberries, destined for jam. She, with her late husband George, bought the property, then a sagebrush-covered hilltop, 45 years ago. Even before they retired from their Santa Monica music store business, they started transforming it into a fig farm. “Our first fig tree was a White Genoa,” Alice recalls, “and then we planted a Brown Turkey. We had so many figs, Jim [Alan’s brother] sold them to raise money for his Cub Scout troop. That’s how it all began.” Today, Jim Cunningham heads the ranch’s honey business, made by millions of Italian honeybees in the 200 hives on the property. The raw honey, sold in liquid and comb form, tastes like a distilization of Malibu’s sun.

“My parents started this as a retirement hobby,” Cunningham says, fondling one of the nylon protectors his mother slips over especially choice figs to protect them from birds as they ripen to perfection. “Now its still a hobby, but it’s also a business and a lifestyle.”