The history of the fig tree in South Africa goes back to the beginnings of the Dutch settlement in 1652. When, according to Jan van Riebeeck’s journal, the first fig seeds were sown in the ‘Kompanjies tuin’ (‘Company’s garden’) in Cape Town.
The fig leaf, as a flavouring agent, has as long a history as some of South Africa’s well-loved delicacies. These include the likes of moskonfyt, green fig preserve, and fig leaf liqueur.
It was the practise at the Cape, to drink wine or spirits that were sweetened with sugar or syrup after a meal, when one retires to smoke. This custom is recorded on pages 76-77 of M. le Vaillant’s ‘Travels into the interior of Africa, first published in London in 1796.
Elizabeth Jane Dijkman wrote the first Afrikaans cookbook in 1891 namely, ‘Di Suid-Afrikaanse Kook-, Koek- en Resepte Boek. On page 91, under ‘Soet sopiis’ (sweet wine or alcohol), she gives a recipe for a liqueur that is made by cooking a handful of fig leaves in water and sugar. The green syrup is then filtered through a milk cloth and added to gin or brandy.
Cooks also preferred fig leaves for flavouring whole-grape jam (korrelkonfyt). Source: Die geskiedenis van Boerekos 1652-1806 (Afrikaans) by Hester Wilhelmina Claassens, 2006.
The fig leaves give the preserves and liqueurs a distinctive green tinge of colour. It also adds a very unique flavour that may be described as being truly Cape. The recipes must have come with the Dutch settlers. I use a recipe from ‘Make Your Own Liqueurs’ by Jean Dickson (1991). It is with interest that I noted that this book was published precisely a 100 years after the one by Elizabeth Jane Dijkman.
With the fig trees covered in a splendid new batch of spring leaves, it was time to make some fig leaf liqueur. I think that I used a bit more leaves in the liqueur because of the size of my hands. I am always concerned when a recipe calls for a picking, or a handful of one or the other ingredient.
Towerwater Fig Leaf Liqueur
2 1/2 cups sugar (500g or 625ml)
15 well-washed fig leaves
750ml good-quality gin
To make the liqueur:
Dissolve the sugar in the water over medium heat using a wooden spoon. Add the fig leaves and bring the mixture to the boil. Boil for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool completely. Remove the leaves squeezing out all the fluid. Discard the leaves and add the gin to the cold syrup.
Strain the liquid into sterilized bottles. Let the liqueur age for 1 month before serving.
Note: This recipe should give you just over 1 litre of liqueur.