From potager to plate
As a child, every other year our family holiday was a trip to my grandparent’s farm in Piedemonte di Matese, near Naples, Italy. It is in southern Italy, where the economy is weaker. Therefore, the main source of income is farming. It was there that I developed a passion for productive plants, vegetables, fruit and sustainable gardening. Not having a great deal of money, the local population needed to make the most of the land and their produce.
Obviously, locally grown vegetables and home-reared meat were the mainstay of the diet, but the most important thing above all else was to ensure that the produce was extremely tasty. After a hard day’s work, nobody wanted a bland dinner.
My abiding memory was watching my grandmother, ‘Nonna’, making her own version of Melanzane Parmigiana; the smell of the tomato sauce on the stove and the slices of aubergine frying alongside it – wonderful, lasting memories! Well, I watched her work, taking mental notes, understanding that one day I would too be doing the same myself. My father passed on her exact recipe, but I still remember how she ‘crafted’ this delicious, wholesome dish.
Today, with an assortment of ripening Mediterranean vegetables in our Potager at Old Camps, I set about recreating the sight, smells and taste of this family dish from southern Italy. This part of the garden is extremely popular with our garden club visits, the colours in September are truly spectacular.
We have a selection of aubergines to choose from in our gardens in Hampshire, but I do like to use ‘Pandora Striped Rose’ and ‘Farmers Long’, as their taste is exquisite. To make the sauce, obviously the plum tomato is top of the list, so we use ‘San Marzano’, which is a relatively large plum variety with a good structure, colour and most important of all – taste.
The key to this recipe, is to make the tomato sauce the day before, so it can infuse overnight, thereby intensifying the flavour. In fact, we had just had a local horticultural society visit that day, so I explained to them the process that you should follow. I also add 0.5kg of beef and pork mince, plus a couple of finely chopped onions and pepper, garlic, basil and oregano, seasoning and a large glug of good quality vino rosso, all of which, excluding the meat came straight from our Potager.
Once the sauce has reduced to a thick consistency, put it in the fridge for the next day. Next, prepare the aubergines by slicing them length ways into 10mm slices and salt them for 30 minutes to remove any bitterness, then rinse them clean and pat dry with kitchen towels.
The aubergines will have to be coated in an egg batter before frying, so this is the next task.
Using 6-8 eggs, break them into a bowl and add a generous serving of grated, good quality parmesan (Parmigiano Reggiano) into the mix and season. With a fork whisk, until the batter is a rich, yellow colour. You can add a little milk to make it go further if you don’t have enough eggs.
Put a large frying pan on the heat and add enough oil to cover the pan with 2-3mm depth; use vegetable oil as this works best at a higher temperature. As Nonna used to, dip the aubergine slices in the batter and fry on both sides until golden. Set aside once cooked and place on kitchen roll to soak up any excess oil.
Now we’re ready to create the dish.
Using a large roasting tray, begin to build the dish in layers; start with a base layer of aubergines, then cover with a layer of the sauce, add some sliced mozzarella, basil and parmesan. Add another layer of aubergines and repeat until you reach the top of the tray. Finish the top off with more mozzarella and parmesan.
Pop it into a warm oven at 180c for about 30 minutes or until the cheese has melted and turned a wonderful, golden brown. At this point your kitchen should be filled with an intoxicating aroma of southern Italy, which will have you reaching for a glass of vino rosso and a sunny terrace; a seat on our tropical terrace or in the Potager itself will do just fine.
Our gardens at Old Camps are a wonderful place for garden groups and horticultural societies to visit and experience food picked from the garden, going straight to the kitchen.
Hopefully Nonna would approve, but either way you can’t beat the taste of fresh vegetables, lovingly grown, being prepared and cooked to a time-honoured recipe that will make your mouth water.
Happy cooking or as Nonna would have said, “Divertiti a cucinare!!”