I recently visited Jimtown Store in Healdsburg, California. It's a quaint little country store that acts as part gift and antique shop, part thirst quencher rest stop for bikers traversing wine country. In one case, they boasted a tasty-looking fig and olive spread for blue cheese.
I figured that the Jimtown condiment couldn't be hard to replicate, and would make a pretty thoughtful gift around this time of year, especially if accompanied by a healthy wedge of blue. Here, a recipe that combines the savory heft of an olive with the earthy sweetness of a fig.
Fig jam is one of my very favorite things to serve with almost any type of cheese, and olives are a main staple in my home. I couldn't imagine that much could go wrong when pairing the two together, even though they don't seem much of a likely couple on paper. But if you think about the ever-convincing flavor concept called "agrodolce," meaning sour and sweet (often represented in a sweet Italian vinegary sauce), the combination becomes much more sensical.
With the Jimtown tapenade as inspiration, I took to the aisles of a local grocery store. Just a few ingredients later, I had the makings for what I knew would be a more-than-adequate approximation of the famed county store's spread. Packaged as a gift, this can be something special. Use old jam or mason jars, or gift it in a decorative bowl. It'll last well in a refrigerator for up to 3 weeks. Don't forget a blue cheese to present alongside. A fresh goat cheese would be nice, too.
Jimtown recommends it alongside Point Reyes Blue cheese, a super lean, spicy blue from Northern California. I sometimes find it slightly too saline, like a hefty dose of seawater that's unwelcome unless you're fully prepared. But a slick of this sweet-briny spread seems just the antidote.
I made a few changes and additions to their list of ingredients, and my discriminating tasters hailed the result with high praise. I incorporated a mix of both green and black olives, green calamyrna figs rather than black mission, capers, fresh thyme, honey, balsamic vinegar, black pepper, and olive oil. After a few hours, the flavors married and became a sweet and sour kind of jam to match with the Stilton I picked as a pairing partner.
This is part caponata, part chutney, part jam, and part tapenade. In the end, it may be all of those things to many different types of cheeses. Blue was pretty convincing with it, playing off of the briny-salty-sweet combination of the capers, olives, and dried figs. The spread balanced the salty sharpness from the blue mold, and pulled out that musty blue sweetness. Two of my family members became believers in the art of cheese pairings; truly, you'll find this pretty unique. Particularly because you'll have made it. Recipe is easily doubled or tripled for gifting.
Fig and Olive Tapenade
Makes about 2/3 cup
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon high-quality balsamic vinegar
2 1/2 teaspoons honey
Large pinch salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 large dried Calamyrna figs, finely diced
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed, drained, and finely chopped
1/4 cup pitted green and black olives, such as nicoise, picholine, or kalamata
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
In a small bowl, whisk to combine olive oil, balsamic vinegar, honey, salt, and pepper. Set aside.
In another bowl, combine figs, capers, olives and thyme. Add vinaigrette and toss to combine. Turn out half of the mixture on a cutting board and chop until very finely diced; add back to bowl and toss to combine. Mixture should be spreadable, but with some of olives, figs, and capers left in small pieces for variation. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper.
Store in refrigerator until ready to serve. Best made at least one hour in advance. Serve at room temperature.
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 private chef in New York City.
Related: Easy Make-Them-Yourself Cheese Accompaniments: The Cheesemonger
(Images: Nora Singley)