Cultural history to bite into - figs on Mallorca

3,000 trees against the loss of identity: Montserrat Pons collects fig trees. For him, figs are the Balearic Islands' identity symbol par excellence. They have been growing on Mallorca for almost 2000 years.

Some collect stamps, others vintage cars. Montserrat Pons collects fig trees. He already has 3,000 in his collection. They don't fit in the album or the garage: the retired pharmacist from Llucmajor needs 18 hectares of land for his hobby. Fortunately, he inherited the land. It is located behind a golf course and near a luxury hotel, not far from the Palma-Llucmajor highway. Montserrat Pons could perhaps have made a lot of money from the land. Sell it, lease it, build a racetrack, as has been done on the other side of the road. But no, Pons wants to preserve the cultural heritage of his island. And figs are an important part of this heritage, as their fruit tells Mallorca's story. Fig trees have been growing on the Balearic Islands since at least the first century AD. "The oldest cultivated tree we have here," says Pons. It was brought here by the Phoenicians and Romans. Botanical descriptions dating back to 1248 show which varieties are the oldest. "There is no tree that has shaped the economy and culture of the islands more," he says.

For him, figs are the Balearic Islands' identity symbol par excellence. His 1,300 varieties at Finca Son Mut Nou come from 64 countries. Botanical gardens, nurseries and freaks like Pons send him cuttings. These are nurtured in pots for months until they form roots and show shoots. Then they are given a place in the long rows of trees in the field. The trees are exactly 13 meters apart and the rows are laid out in such a way that a water tanker can drive between them. The young fig trees are watered with a hose; Pons fetches the water from a well on the finca. He does not have enough money for an irrigation system. Pons and his employee protect the seedlings against wild rabbits with a plastic collar on the trunk and hang a label with the species on a branch. The labels say things like "Princesa", "Nazaret", "Calderona" or "Wuhan". Local varieties have beautiful names such as "Bonjesusa" (Saint Jesus) or "Coll de Dama" (Lady's Neck).

To be on the safe side, he has created a planting plan on which each tree is identified and commented on. The plantation is well cared for, all the trees are perfectly pruned and no grass grows between the trunks. If Pons simply let the trees grow, he would soon have a fig tree thicket. Fig trees are idiosyncratic: as soon as a branch touches the ground, it takes root and a new tree grows.
You quickly realize that this is a man with a sense of order and a passion for his work. Montserrat Pons goes into raptures when he talks about old varieties. "If it weren't for this finca, many would have died out by now."
He has registered 240 varieties on the Balearic Islands. "Every village had its own varieties," he explains, "people here lived according to the self-sufficiency principle, there was hardly any exchange."

Fig trees like it dry and hot

1,300 varieties grow on Finca Son Mut Nou, and not all figs are the same.

Three times a week in summer, you can visit the finca in the morning and pick figs. You pay according to the market price, which goes down to three euros in late summer. Visitors are given a stick with a fork to pull up branches. A sun hat and closed shoes are advisable. Then you're ready to go.

But where to start? Ask Pons. He explains in which corner of the plantation ripe figs are hanging on the tree. It has rained a lot this winter, so the fruit is large and juicy. A tip for beginners: try first, then start picking. Not all figs are the same. There are green and dark purple, dry and juicy, sweet and tart, round or tubular. When picking the fruit, it is best not to injure it, but to use your fingers to pinch off the knot to which it is attached to the branch. Figs will keep longer in the fridge, up to five days.

Mallorcans usually eat the fruit fresh and dry part of the harvest for the winter. Nutritious fig bread used to get many farm workers through the day.

On the large estates, the possessions, the estate managers assigned the fig harvest to the women. Equipped with three-legged ladders, flat baskets and wide-brimmed sun hats, they spent the hottest days of the year under the trees. To make the tiring work easier, they sang. Many songs about the fig harvest have survived to this day.

In the past, Mallorca was covered in fig trees, 22,000 hectares in 1950, today there are still 800 hectares. The sprawling trees with the large leaves were not only planted for their fruit, but also to provide shade for the sheep. What is now considered a delicacy and costs up to ten euros per kilo at the start of the season used to be the bread of the poor. That's why older islanders in particular associate the fruit with something completely different to foreigners. Today, many landowners leave the fruit to rot on the tree, to the delight of insects, which can get intoxicated by fermented figs. Many feed the figs to their pigs. It is said that pigs fattened with figs produce particularly good meat when slaughtered in winter.
The south and center of the island have the greatest fig tree tradition. Here, where it is dry and hot, figs thrive magnificently.

Once the trees have grown, they no longer need water. Montserrat Pons advises and sells trees of different varieties. You should choose the planting site carefully. As they have extremely long, strong roots that grow very deep, fig trees should not be planted near a house or even a cistern or well. There are always stories of fig trees that have drained their owners' drinking water supply.

Text: Brigitte Kramer Photo: Corinna Cramer

Son Mut Nou
Camí des Palmer without number,

Visiting hours:
Tuesdays, Thursdays and
Saturdays between 9 am and 2 pm. If you don't buy anything, you should
give a donation. The store sells homemade jam,
Chutney, liqueur, vinegar, fig bread and dried figs.
Phone: +34-971-66 03 95
or +34-646 63 32 59

Son Mut Nou

The south and center of the island have the greatest fig tree tradition.

Visitors are given a stick with a branch fork to pull up branches. A sun hat and closed shoes are advisable. Then you're ready to go.
But where to start? Ask Pons. He explains in which corner of the plantation ripe figs are hanging on the tree. A tip for beginners: try first, then start harvesting. Not all figs are the same.

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