Mad Apples & Antonietta
Every morning and evening my neighbour Salvatore drives his little green Ape off to campagna and returns with a bucket full of home grown melanzane. Shining, deep purple pear-drops complete with perfectly pointed hats, they are (almost) too beautiful to eat. His wife, Antonietta, who in the summer has her door open all day and practically lives on the pavement, intermittently sweeping and stopping to exchange a few words with whoever may happen to pass, throws some into a bag, chasing me down the street to give them to me. Her door swings open, a tiny painting of a saint and the Madonna wedged into the frame.
'Take them away!' She pleads, 'I can’t use anymore. You know how I use them? I make a parmigiana or two, and put it in the freezer, or I like them impanate. But I’ll tell you the trucco. Dip them in flour first, that way they don’t get all soggy with oil.'
I go home and follow her advice. Slicing them into discs and dipping them first in flour, then beaten egg, then breadcrumbs, and then shallow frying them in olive oil. And, of course, she’s right, they are creamy, light, wonderfully crisp and sweet, but not at all greasy or limp with fat.
Growing up in rural England I can’t say we ever ate aubergines. I came to know them when I started eating non English food (which wasn’t until my late teens) and would find them in curries. Then, when I went to work in my first restaurant I came to know them more intimately still, whole roasted and served with tahini sauce or blistered and blitzed into a baba ganoush. And then in my final restaurant, crusted in polenta, deep fried and served with date molasses and whipped feta (a winning crispy sweet salty combination).
Botanically a berry and a member of the deadly nightshade family, the aubergine is a strange fruit. Bitter when seedy (the seeds contain the same bitter compound found in tobacco) but sweet when cooked slowly, they are spongey when raw but valued mostly for their ability to absorb flavour and take on an either crisp or creamy consistency. There is something a little mystical about this pointy-hatted fruit, not least all the myths surrounding its name. During the Renaissance the fruit was believed by Italians to cause madness, and commonly referred to as a Mad Apple, or mela insana in Italian.
‘It is impossible to burn aubergines’ I once boldly declared having forgotten about them on a barbecue whilst enthusiastically sampling some local Retsina.
Not quite true, but not a lie either. The more caramelisation you can get on an aubergine, the better, and some of the best aubergines have been blackened entirely, their insides collapsing into sweet, silken flesh the colour of February but with the flavour of fire.
One of my favourite ways to eat aubergines is this recipe, kindly provided by Antonietta but an old Italian classic, also known as ‘Aubergine Cutlets’. Instead of the classic veal, chicken or pork fillet which is breaded and fried until crisp outside and succulent within, a slice of aubergine is used; a so-called ‘poor man’s version’ which is infinitely more delicious. The aubergine within becomes sweet and creamy, the breaded exterior crisp and savoury. There is no finer way of celebrating the mysterious mad and majestic melanzane.
When choosing aubergines…
Look for firmness, few seeds, and pert shining skin. Avoid bendiness at all costs. My favourite are the Violetta variety, which are particularly creamy and the most beautiful to look at. Their hats the most witchy too. Such things matter.
Antonietta's Aubergine Cutlets
Serves 4-6 as an antipasti or side dish. I also like them just as they are for lunch with maybe a mozzarella and tomato salad.
A few tablespoons of plain flour
A good pinch of salt
About 100g coarse breadcrumbs
1 large egg, beaten
Olive oil for frying
Slice the aubergines into 4mm coins/discs.
Mix the flour with the salt and place in a dish. Place the egg in a dish alongside, and then the breadcrumbs too.
Dip the aubergine slices first in the flour, then in the egg and then in the breadcrumbs, making sure to get a nice even layer all over.
Heat a deep frying pan with around an inch of olive oil until the oil begins to swirl. Add the slices in batches and shallow fry, turning occasionally, until golden brown all over. Serve sprinkled with more salt.