For a good 12 years, I had two pepper trees in my garden. They grew like wildfire above my two storey house, their roots almost aerial at times stretching through my wall way across my neighbour’s garden. When the roots were aiming for her well, she decided enough was enough. But, I could reassure her that I’d decided to have them felled anyway. I loved their shade, drooping shape and frond-like leaves, which reminded me of weeping willows along English riversides. But what made me give up on them was the crud they dropped; bucketloads all year round, and sackfulls when the wind blew, which it does nearly all year round in Malta.
The debris was full of bunches of what locals call red pepper corns. I can’t remember the botanical name for the tree. When it rained, the peppery smell pervaded my house. For 12 years, I dumped tonnes of peppercorns in the rubbish, little knowing that I could in fact have used at least some in my cooking. Recently I bought a packet for a recipe and when I nibbled one, I realised it was the self-same red peppercorn I’d ditched all those years. I’ve now started adding them to all sorts of dishes, including, strangely perhaps, to a balsamic vinegar reduction as a dressing on this salad. For me, it works! Lifting the subtle taste of the summer’s first (and probably last) green figs.
Figs are a very short season and even if their trees also grow like wildfire in the wild here, the fruit is still hard to come by. A good many wild trees lack decent fruit or any at all. The farmers’ market has them now, but won’t in a week, so I make the most of this short-lived but tasty fruit of the wild in a simple summer salad along with Lollo Rosso to add to the deep aubergine-green hues of the figs. Delicious with Parma ham and equally as nice I would think with a cheese like shaved Parmesan or a gentle soft crumbly one too.
All images © Liz Ayling 2014
- 6-8 medium green (or purple) figs
- 10 slices Parma Ham
- 1 rounded tablespoon red peppercorns
- 1 large Lollo Rosso lettuce
- 60ml Balsamic Vinegar
- 1 tbsp honey
- Gently open the lettuce and rinse and spin in a salad spinner or gently shake and pat dry with kitchen paper.
- Arrange the Lollo Rosso on a large plate or individual side plates.
- Place the Balsamic vinegar in a small, heavy-based pan along with the honey and around ⅔rds of the red peppercorns, which you need to have crushed lightly in a mortar first. Heat to a boil then simmer for a few minutes to reduce. Remove from the heat while the balsamic reduction is still liquidy; it will thicken on cooling. Set aside.
- Take two slices of Parma Ham and dry fry in a solid-based pan to crisp up. Drain on kitchen paper and crumble up the ham.
- Wash and pat dry the figs. Then, slice up into around six wedges. Arrange on top of the Lollo Rosso.
- Arrange the remaining ham slices on the salad plate. Drizzle over the balsamic red pepper reduction and scatter over some more red peppercorns, some lightly crushed, and some whole. Scatter over the dry, cooked and crumble ham. The salad is ready to serve immediately.
- If making up for later, don’t put the dressing on until just before serving, but cover the salad and place in the fridge.
- It’s perfect eaten alone as a light meal but you can use as a summer starter. For a more substantial salad, add some cheese of choice – I’d opt for a medium-soft, stark white crumbly variety like Caerphilly or a goats’ cheese.
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