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“Che Fico!”

The fig and its odd place in the Italian language

In the modern Italian language, the expression Che fico/figo! (literally, What a fig!) has absolutely nothing to do with the fruit. This popular expression was coined by young people in the 1970s. It is a way of referring to somebody or something as awesome, much like Americans would use the expression “So cool!”

But figs have not always been cool. Plentiful and easily grown anywhere in central and southern Italy, figs were used as sweetener before cane sugar arrived in Europe from the New World. Historically, figs have been a staple of farmers' diets due to their energetic properties but they were equally appreciated by the noble class.

Overtime figs have lost their luster. Their ill fate is reflected in the many common phrases below:

Mica pizza e fichi - “It’s not pizza and figs”.  A colloquial expression used to emphasize when something is not common or easily affordable.

Non vali un fico secco - “You are not worth a dried fig”.  Used to say that someone is worthless.

Fare le nozze con i fichi secchi - Literally, “To have a wedding feast with dried figs.” This means to be stingy and not spend the appropriate amount of money required by the situation.

Cogliere i fichi in vetta - “Picking figs at the top”.  This expression alludes to taking an unnecessary risk, akin to climbing a fig tree to pick its fruits from the highest branches, which are known to break easily.

There is even a proverb that degrades the poor fig.

Fare come gli antichi, che tagliavano il fico per cogliere i fichi - Literally, “To do like the ancient people, who cut the fig tree to pick the figs” – which means to do something excessively drastic, where the damage is bigger than the gain.

As part of cibo povero (poor food) figs are well integrated in the Italian culinary tradition. Fresh figs are often used for crostate (fruit tarts), dried figs for making cookies, and overripe figs for jam. Fresh figs are also delicious on toasted bread with ricotta cheese; in a fresh salad with prosciutto, mozzarella and basil; or added to a gourmet pizza with goat cheese and arugula. At Christmas time, dried figs as well as dried apricots, raisins and dates are a holiday food tradition.

Figs are making their comeback. Black, purple and green figs can be found at supermarkets and more often at farmers markets across Italy in late summer through fall, depending on the variety.

To experience and celebrate figs, there are a number of dedicated sagre (festivals highlighting agricultural products) all over Italy. A few examples of this include Festa del Fico Bianco del Cilento in September (in the Campania region) and Sagra del Fico Secco a Carmignano in October (in Tuscany). The latter is recognized by The Slow Food Movement as an agricultural product of excellence.

Now that’s fico!

WebMD Video: 'One Food Wonder Figs' (EN)
La Repubblica: Ricetta - pizza con i fichi (IT)

Article written by Gaia Mencagli in collaboration with the ICC Editorial Team

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