Cavaniola's cheese stand, a smaller outpost of the Hamptons' cheese shop by the same name. Beautiful cheeses, they have. But then my friend — with her veritable insider status — pointed out the fig ball. Just by sight it looks unique. And once it's in your hand you know for sure: this ain't no ordinary thing. For $14, you get a rich, senselessly aromatic ball of compacted dried fruit. Imported from Calabria, no less (Italy's toe).
Apparently, it starts with fresh figs that are then dehydrated and left to macerate in anisette liqueur. They're then packed tightly together — I'd guess there are about 30 figs in all — and wrapped in a large fig leaf and baked. Not sure if it's baked before being wrapped in the leaf, actually, but the mystery only adds to its tastiness. I suppose it's all of the fruit sugars that make it stick together but again, this remains a bit elusive. I was instructed to cut into the ball with a knife and just let the figs fall where they may. Each orb is a sticky sweet fig matrix, decoded only as you begin to disassemble the fig configuration. Split in half, it nearly resembles a head of garlic cut crosswise, with its neat little cloves of fruit. These figs are like concentrated little gems of fig jam; their size belies their intensity.
Figs are my favorite fruit for cheese. They're jammy, intensely fruity, and nearly savory. They're reminiscent of how grapes go well with cheese, but because figs have such concentrated sugars (not to mention so many special textures), they can stand up to the fat, salt, and general heft of cheese much more effectively. And when dried, it's as if all of these qualities increase, like, 40-fold. The fig ball smell is outrageous. It's at once fruity, caramel-y, smokey, and earthy. Something about the fig leaf smells like tobacco, or sweet smoke from a pipe. I couldn't stop holding the round to my nose; I passed it around to coworkers when I brought it into work and they all reacted in the same kind of obsessive, oh-my-goodness-what-is-this-amazing-thing sort of way. I served the ball with blue cheese and fresh ricotta, just to get a true sense of whether it'd go well with cheeses from each end of the strong spectrum. And surprise, surprise, there was no issue. At all.
→ This fig ball is available at Cavaniola's cheese shop in Manhattan's All Good Things market in Tribeca or at the location in Sag Harbor, Long Island.Nora Singley used to be a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop. Until recently she was a TV Chef on The Martha Stewart Show. She is currently a freelance food stylist and recipe developer in New York. Related: Preserving the Season: Figs (Image: Nora Singley)