Bakery Bulletin: The complex evolution of the Fig Roll

A Fig Roll. Photo by Ubcule.
A Fig Roll. Photo by Ubcule.

Most people think that Christopher Columbus discovered America.

The indigenous population of America at the time probably wouldn’t agree, and nor would the Vikings. He did write about it though, so he can be credited with telling us all that he found something that wasn’t lost.

Most people also think that Columbus discovered that the world wasn’t flat. Every sailor already knew this. So too did whoever made the globe that archaeologists found that dates back to 1492 (when Columbus hadn’t yet returned from his travels). To be fair, America isn’t on the globe, but it is very clearly spherical. So the greatest achievement of Mr Columbus is his writing. He wrote about every aspect of his travels and even dedicated an entire page to figs.

Marco Polo also gets credit for a bunch of stuff he didn’t do. His work is full of errors (as in he didn’t know China all that well - grammatically I’m sure it was fine) and rumour has it that he based his “findings” on hearsay (as in he eavesdropped travellers, not the mildly successful group consisting of Myleene Klass, Kym Marsh, the blonde one, and the three boys who probably work in a call centre now). Marco Polo’s best gift to society is his eponymous playground game. He also wrote about figs.

Figs have an insect all of their own. Their name is a dead giveaway. Fig wasps are essential to the successful cultivation of figs. The female fig wasp forces her way into a fig. In so doing, she loses most of her antennae and her wings get ripped off. She lays some eggs and then dies. The eggs hatch, become larvae, then little wasps, then they mate. The male wasps create an escape hatch for the female wasps. They all make it out, but the males die shortly afterwards. The females find another fig and the weird and not-at-all-wonderful process begins again. But what about the original female wasp? Surely we’re not all crunching up a little dead girl wasp every time we have a fig salad? No, we’re not. Not literally anyway. The fig produces an enzyme which allows the fig to digest the dead girl wasp and the nutrients of said dead girl wasp actually ripen the fruit. Mmm... Yummy.

Fig Rolls were invented by wasp-haters. Actually, it was the Ancient Egyptians, and given that they thought mummification was a good idea (Brendan Fraser can testify that it most definitely isn’t), they were probably unaware of the wasp graveyard inside each fig.

Tutankharmun’s Fig Rolls were slightly different to today’s, but apart from the gaudy packaging, it’s only really the production method that differs. Ancient Egyptians would hand-roll preserved figs in a floury dough; the Americans invented a machine. Charles Roser patented his Fig Roll maker in 1892. It’s a machine that puts fig paste in dough. Just like Columbus before him, Charles Roser has a paper-thin claim to being “the discoverer” of something that had already been discovered, but unlike with Marco Polo’s legacy, nobody walks around the playground shouting “Charles”.

Unless the playground’s at Eton. But then one wouldn’t be so vulgar as to shout. And as for the insinuation that one would play a game not involving any equipment or animals? Codswallop, old boy, codswallop. Now let’s adjourn to the drawing room for a Dead Girl Wasp Roll. Tally-ho.