As we were driving through the Charlotte countryside yesterday, my husband remarked, “I almost feel like we’re in Italy..” Such was the perfect, bright fall day we were having. Sunny and warm with hardly a hint of moisture in the air. Of course figs grow here. Wait, we’re not in California or a Mediterranean climate, we’re in VERMONT. Figs, really? Yet there we were, looking at lovely Paradiso Farm, and its large greenhouse full of lush, thriving, beautiful fig trees. I’ve been wanting to visit this place since I read about the farm in Seven Days last year.
Paradiso Farm in Charlotte is a small farm run by Steve Colangeli, who, when he’s not tending his fig trees and roasting his own coffee, is a science and agriculture teacher at Middlebury High School. Home to Vermont Figs, the name Paradiso, came from a particular variety of fig tree, one of the first fig varieties he grew. Steve remembers his Italian grandparents growing figs at their home just outside of New York City and was inspired to carry on the tradition, just a bit further north.
The season for figs is short. They begin to ripen in September and are harvested through the month. Figs do not ripen after they’re picked, so they must be picked when just ripe and eaten soon after, within a couple of days. Steve sells his figs to local restaurants, notably Shelburne Farms and Taverna Khione, and if there are any left, he brings them to the Shelburne Farmers Market, where they’re displayed like the jewels they are.
I adore fresh figs. To me, they have an almost ethereal quality, so fleeting and ephemeral are they. So gorgeous and voluptuous. Steeped in historic symbolism, fig trees have been cultivated for thousands of years. Across cultures, figs have symbolized abundance, eroticism, fertility, religious faith, and knowledge. They are delicately flavored, sweet, with a soft texture and a light crunch from the constellation of tiny seeds inside. To be able to get them fresh and local here in Vermont is to my mind, nothing short of a miracle.
An Italian Honey fig above
On Paradiso Farm, fig trees are propagated from cuttings. The greenhouse houses about 40 or so fig trees of different varieties, ranging in size and age, from newly planted to several years old. Some of the varieties Steve grows have the most romantic names, Paradiso, Italian Honey and Celeste, among them. Surprisingly, plants can begin producing figs within a year of propagation. We looked at a plant heavy with ripening figs that had been propagated less than a year ago.
The trees must be protected from bitter cold in the winter, so most plants are moved from the farm’s unheated greenhouse into the cold storage of the garage where they are protected from the bitter cold, and allowed to go into dormancy. Figs grow from new wood, so trees are cut back during their winter dormancy, allowing for new growth in the spring.
Currently, Steve grows not only figs, but turmeric as well. Turmeric, a tropical plant with an edible root, can be used fresh or dried. When dried and ground, it lends a lovely yellow color to a dish and is often used in curries. I love turmeric, so I bought a plant – it seemed less daunting than growing a fig tree (which he also sells).
Turmeric plants above
Mira is Steve’s adorable miniature Australian Shepherd
Steve also roasts small batch coffees on the farm, sourcing his organic beans from fair-trade coffee farmers and sharing their stories with his customers. He is currently building a dedicated space for his coffee roaster and plans to begin a coffee CSA to supply locals with freshly roasted coffee year round.
Vermont is truly a state of lovely surprises. Paradiso Found. If you want to learn more about Steve and Paradiso Farm, check out his website: paradisofarm.com