Tag Archive for: Aubergine

Regionality is a foodie buzz word. Yet increasingly dishes in vogue transcend their locality. Take the dosa, fermented lentil and rice crepe of South India. Such is its popularity you’ll now find it across the whole of the Sub-continent and in many a street food spot in the UK (though I notice it is absent from the revamped Bundobust menu). Well, I always, felt I wasn’t getting the full masala dosa experience there with their mini-version. I like mine to be huge crispy, stuffed scrolls.

Which brings us, by a roundabout route, to the previous insularity of Spanish regional cuisines. Tapas and Pintxos may be Iberian cousins but  Andalucian and Basque culture and food stem from separate bedrocks. I recall an Eighties Spanish road trip when in some Castilian cantina I ordered a Manzanilla. Expecting a chilled glass of saline dry sherry from Sanlucar de Barrameida in the south, I was rewarded with a glass of chamomile (‘little apple’) tea. That confusion wouldn’t happen nowadays. Ditto on a Seville wine list you might easily find a Galician Albarino alongside sherries and local drops.

All corners of Spain retain distinctive cuisines of their own alongside the tourist staples of paella and sangria, but some very specific dishes named for their place of origin are also now ubiquitous in markets and on bar counters.

The Plaza Major is the glorious architectural centrepiece of Almagro

Take Berenjenas Almagro, pickled aubergine speciality from the sleepy La Mancha town of Almagro. Think a less complicated cousin of the Sicilian Caponata. Tastier maybe. I’d like to say I first came across the dish, which is eaten cold, in situ or even in Bilbao or Seville but it was in Paul Richardson’s revelatory 2007 culinary travelogue, A Late Dinner: Discovering The Food of Spain. More recently I found a workable recipe on Page 202 of Rick Stein’s Spain, spin-off from one of his more informed BBC series. Home prepared, though, it never tastes as good as in Spain.

Perched in the south of the vast meseta that is the Castilian heartland, Don Quixote country, Almagro (pronounced alˈmayɾo) is made for telly. Notably its Plaza Mayor and 16th century theatre, both products of the wealth generated by mercury mining, though it is the lacemaking introduced by Flemish families in that period that is the major legacy today. Oh and for hundreds of years before and after a particular aubergine recipe has been a constant.

Of Indian origin, the aubergine arrived in Spain via the Berbers. You see the name adapt to its new territories – the Persian badingan to the Arab badinjan to the Spanish berenjena, eventually to the French aubergine. Along the way it conquered a bad press, which had it responsible for piles, cancer, leprosy, poisoning and insanity. Indeed, the Italian name, melanzane, comes from the Latin mala insana or ‘mad apple’.

Aubergines or eggplants come in varied sizes and colours

Still it became a fundamental part of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. Not always as the ample purple specimen that dominates our shelves. Often it was white or green striped and the size of an egg, hence its American name, the eggplant. 

It’s this variant that the folk of Almagro took to their hearts and their pickling vats. If you attempt to recreate it at home seek out Thai aubergines or at a pinch the mini dark varieties in Asian stores. It’s hard to find any canned Berenjenas Almagro in the UK.

Rick Stein’s Pickled Aubergine Almagro Style

1.25kg small aubergines

3 large roasted red peppers

500ml red wine vinegar

120ml olive oil

3tbsp caster sugar

½tsp crushed dried red chilli flakes

2tsp pimentón dulce

25g garlic cloves crushed

2tsp freshly ground cumin seeds

½tsp dried oregano

Salt and freshly ground black pepper


Bring a pan of well salted water to the boil. Make a small slit lengthwise in each aubergine down to within 1cm of the stalk. Drop them into the water for five minutes or until just tender, yet crunchy. Drain, leave to cool. 

Meanwhile split open the red peppers, discard the stalks and seeds and cut the flesh into 5mm wide strips. Push a couple of strips into each aubergine slit and then pack them tightly into two sterilised one-litre Kilner jars.

In a pan mix the remaining ingredients with 300ml water, 1tbsp salt and ½tsp pepper. Bring to the boil, pour over the aubergines, so they are completely covered, put on the lid and refrigerate. They are ready to eat within 24 hours and will keep for up to three weeks. 

From Rick Stein’s Spain (BBC Books, hb £25)


If there’s one book in English that captures the sheer ‘Duende’ of Spanish regional food it is A Late Dinner, companion piece to the earlier Our Lady of the Sewers, Richardson’s quest for the old, dark Spain. Both are highly recommended. The author has lived in Spain  since 1990, latterly, self-sufficiently with his husband on a remote Extremaduran farm. How he came there is the central theme of a recent When In Spain Podcast.

He has shared many discoveries about his adopted country. A pickled aubergine is not too humble to acknowledge. For A Late Dinner after encountering Maria del Carmen Sanchez Serrano, a berenjerena or ‘one who occupies herself with aubergine’ since she was eight year old, he visits the family pickling works, born out of extreme hardship following the Civil War. The key elements are the aubergines the size of a small fist grown in the richer soils of nearby Aldea del Rey and getting the boiling time exactly right before curing.

“I said goodbye before she stomped off to load up the van; tomorrow she had a delivery. We shook hands. Her arms were stained orange with pimentón – the permanent tan of the aubergine maker. ‘Berenjerenos, berenjerenos, that’s what we are. And it’s too late to be anything else,’ she said with a smile of resignation, tiredness and satisfaction.”

For tourism information on Amalgro and the Ciudad Real region visit this link.

Opera has alway been entwined with food, especially Italian. We’re not talking tour riders of the stars with Pavarotti apparently demanding a 24 hour kitchen be set up next to his room with fridges packed with pasta, tomatoes and roast chickens, enough to feed 20. It was a phobia from an impoverished childhood – the big man ate comparatively moderately.

No it’s the way great names have become attached to certain dishes – Tournedos Rossini, Spaghetti Caruso, Peach Melba, Salsa Verdi. OK, I employed artistic licence on that last one. And then there is a truly terrific dish called after an actual opera. It is also one of the simplest to prepare, provided you’ve sourced the exact ingredients.

Pasta alla Norma has become the unofficial signature dish of Sicily. Invented in Catania on the east coast about the time Vincenzo Bellini’s romantic opera Norma premiered, it is said that the pasta was created as a homage. Legend has it that Nino Martoglio, an Italian writer and poet, was so delighted when presented with this dish that he compared its splendour with that of the opera.

Alternatively, according to Ben Tish in his evocative cookbook, Sicilia (Bloomsbury, £26) – one of my Cookbooks of 2021 – “another story tells of a talented home cook who served her creation to a group of gourmands and was duly christened at the table via the classic Sicilian compliment of Chista e na vera Norma (‘this is a real Norma’). Whatever the truth, the dish became an instant classic and its fame spread around the world.”

At my last London review meal before the lockdowns I ate this iconic dish of rigatoni, aubergine, tomato, basil and ricotta salata, appropriately enough, at Norma, the restaurant Ben created in Fitzrovia for the Stafford Group, showcasing the dishes in his book, many with Moorish influences. He has recently moved on. I finally published my account of that memorable meal in June 2021.

Since when I’ve looked out for Pasta alla Norma on menus in my native north. Among the indies specifically offering the island’s cuisine you won’t find it at Sicilian NQ in Manchester or A Tavola Gastronomia Siciliana in New Mills, though Trinacria in York do serve it. Less surprisingly the more generic Rosso in Manchester or the PIccolino chain do not list it. Rivals San Carlo do, but substitute pecorino for the ricotta salata. A cardinal sin in Catania, even though these crumbly, grateable sharp cheeses have much in common.

Indeed, my home quest to replicate the perfect Norma has been hampered by the absence of ricotta salata in my life. Until recently.

So what makes the salata version separate from that mild soft whey cheese found in tubs across the land. For a start, it packs a pungent, salty punch. Hence the name. It is  is only made over winter and spring when pastures are lush and herb-filled and the cooler air is perfect for ageing. 

I located an authentic version from Bermondsey-based Italian Artisan food importers Ham and Cheese after being alerted by the folk behind new Hebden Bridge bar, Coin, who serve a range of their charcuterie.

The ricotta salata I bought online is made by the Agostino family, who sell it normally from their butchers shop in Mirto, on Sicily’s north coast, west of Messina. We must have driven past on a road trip from Etna to Cefalu (main picture) the other year.

Their version is made from full-fat, raw cow’s milk, sometimes with the addition of goat’s or sheep’s milk, and is curdled with lamb or kid rennet before being put in to moulds. After a couple of days it spends 48 hours in a brine bath and is then aged for three months. It was a wonderful component of the Tish recipe for Pasta alla Norma. My one deviation from the norm (sic)? I added salted capers. Because they go so well in that other Sicilian aubergine, classic, caponata. Below, it tasted as good as it looked…

Ingredients: 2 firm aubergines, trimmed and cut into 2cm dice; 150ml extra virgin olive oil; ½ onion, finely chopped; 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped; a good handful of basil leaves

800g quality canned chopped tomatoes or passata; 400g dried rigatoni; 200g ricotta salata cheese, grated; sea salt

Method: Put the diced aubergines in a colander in the sink and sprinkle with salt. Leave to drain for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to its highest temperature, around 250°C/230°C fan/Gas Mark 10.

Rinse the aubergine in cold water and pat dry with a kitchen towel, then toss in a bowl with half the oil. Spread out on a baking tray, place in the oven and cook for 15-20 minutes or until caramelised, turning occasionally to make sure the pieces don’t dry out.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining oil in a medium saucepan over a medium heat and add the onion and garlic. Sauté for a couple of minutes, then add half the basil and the tomatoes. Bring to a simmer. Turn down the heat and cook gently for 23–30 minutes or until thickened (the exact time will depend on your canned tomato brand).

When the sauce is almost ready, cook the pasta in plenty of boiling salted water according to the packet instructions to al dente. Add the aubergine to the sauce. Drain the pasta (reserving a little of the cooking water) and toss in the sauce. If the sauce seems too thick, add some cooking water to loosen.

Divide among the plates and sprinkle with the ricotta and remaining basil leaves, roughly torn over the top. It’s best to allow this to cool slightly before eating.

Serves four