Pink peppercorns are not really peppercorns; it is a fake identity. They are the berries of Schinus molle, a tree native in South America. They somehow made the journey in the spice business from west to east – not from east to west. The tree now thrives in several lands and can can be found even in Zappeion in the center of Athens, near the ceremonial guard watch, where we used to stroll daily with our son during the covid lockdown. Of course in their native lands by the Andes they had a long association with costumes and rites. It fact they were not used to spice up fig and onion tarts, but people. Yes, they were used by the Incas for producing chicha, a fermented drink. If you were one of the lucky ones to be offered to the gods, you were first rubbed with chicha remains, then buried alive, then force-fed with more of the drink (think ducks and foie gras). So, pink peppercorns only pretend to be nice – in reality they await to be put in good use as they were for ages.
Figs, on the other hand, are much tamer, with the exception of the milky sap that can cause a mild rush. I think it’s effect is more annoying for children, as I remember from the times we climbed the fig trees in summer for their sweet fruit. Our trees in Naxos produce more figs than we or our friends can consume, so we try to use them anyway we can. One summer we cooked lots of chutney with mixed results. Fig salads with goat cheese are a success. This year as we decided to play it covid safe and not travel by boat for holidays we did not visit Naxos, so we must content with the fig donations of our neighbour in Anavyssos.
Figs, pink peppercorns, onions, thyme and feta (another local produce) work very well in this tart.
For the pastry
- 230g all purpose flour
- 1/2 tsp sea salt
- 100g cold unsalted butter, cubed
- 25g egg, lightly beaten (approx. 1/2 large egg)
- 40g cold tap water
For the caramelised onions
- 2Tbsp olive oil
- 2 large onions, peeled and finely sliced
- 1 tsp finely chopped thyme leaves
- 1 pinch fine sea salt
- 1 tsp butter
For the filling
- 200g grated feta cheese
- 6-7 fresh figs, ends trimmed and cut into 1cm thick slices
- 1 tsp pink peppercorns, crushed
- 1 tsp finely chopped thyme leaves
- freshly ground black pepper
For the pastry put the flour, salt and butter in a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and combine until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Change to the hook attachment and add the cold water and the egg. Continue mixing until dough comes together to form a ball. Shape the dough into a disc, wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Place the pastry between two sheets of baking parchment and roll out to a thickness of 2mm.
Butter a 24cm fluted tart tin, line with the pastry and gently push it into the base and edges,allowing the excess to hang over the sides. Prick all over the base of the tart with a fork and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 170°C.
Cut a large circle of baking parchment and scrunch it up a couple of times. Lay it over the pastry base, fill with beans or coins and bake for approximately 15 minutes before removing the beans or coins and parchment. Return the pastry case to the oven and bake for a further 5-10 minutes, until golden brown. Remove the tart tin from the oven, let cool a little and then, using a sharp knife, cut the excess pastry from around the top of the tart tin.
For the caramelised onions, heat the oil in a large heavy bottomed pan over medium heat. Add the onions with a generous pinch of salt and cook slowly for around 30-40 mins. Stir occasionally to prevent them from sticking or burning until they become soft and a golden caramel colour. Remove from the heat, add the chopped thyme leaves, the butter and toss well.
Combine 1/3 of the grated feta cheese with the onion mixture and spread over the pastry base. Spread another 1/3 of feta cheese over the onion mixture and arrange the fig slices on top.
Sprinkle the rest of the feta cheese, the chopped thyme , the crushed peppercorns and some freshly ground black pepper and bake for about 20 minutes.