With allotments, come gluts. It doesn’t matter how well you plan your rotation or how large the family is; there will always be times when you have too much; too much to eat, too much to give away, just too much to damn well cope with. Some things are more prone to this gluttishness than others – runner beans have a mission to run amock, tomatoes conspire in a simultaneous, overwhelming rush of ripening, apples scold you with their lemming like windfalling. Their fertility becomes a chore, a curse. There are of course, other gluts that are never onerous. I never heard anyone complain that they had “too many cherries”, or that they were “over run with greengages”. And even when over abundance forces you to turn all WI and start pickling and preserving, a three year old jar of raspberry jam is always a delight to discover, whereas a jar of green tomato chutney half its age, never fails to ruin anyone’s day.
So what’s the Sicilian connection here? Aubergines. Melanzane. That’s what.
Aubergines are buggers in Birmingham. They are, admittedly, way outside their comfort zone. So much so, that the only way I guarantee success is to grow grafted plants, prewarned about their life 52 degrees north. Some years they work, some years they languish and succumb to black moulds and some years they go into overdrive. 2019 was one such year. If I knew why, I’d be the horticultural love child of Monty Don and Alan Titchmarsh.
But, I’ve no idea why this year turned out so well. The summer has been decidedly lack-lustre; mostly rain, wind and greyness, with short-lived bursts of yah-boo-sucks extreme heat to remind us what summer could be, should be like. They’re in the same tunnel as some decidedly forlorn tomato plants, more inclined to produce stunted greenery than to reproduce. Similarly, chillies have reluctantly, begrudgingly thrown out a few desultory pops of heat, but more as a two fingered insult than as a call of nature.
But, for whatever reason, the under-cover aubergines, got their feet under the table and decided to fruit, continue fruiting, and then carry on some more.
They’re proper aubergines too – all unforgiving stalk spines and corky ingrown blips that shelter woodlice. They don’t have that glossy, pantone perfection of the supermarket. More, the look of something stitched together by Sid Phillips in Toy Story. But, hey, once they’ve been despatched, chopped, homogenised; they’re the best tasting aubergines in my postcode.
So it’s been a summer of caponata, of aubergines stuffed with mint and cheese, of parmigiana (whose idiot idea was it to make parmigiana for a summer party of 50?). And still they come. The end is in sight, but a glut is a glut, and I’m about to be overwhelmed by Borlotti beans now jostling their way to the front of the harvest line.
Two things then come to my rescue. Oil and sandwiches.
An aubergine sandwich is a thing of joy. It’s also a thing of Palermo; a staple – taking fried steaks of aubergine, adding what ever you like; cheese? basil? mortadella? tomato? anchovy? If you want to go full Palermitan, add pannelle. But the aubergines are the creamy, almost meaty base that asks to be added to. Quick, cheap, wonderful. On the other hand, an aubergine sandwich made with steaks that have been steeped in oil, infused with garlic, chilli or bay. Well, that’s altogether a more wonderful thing.
Take your glut of aubergines then, slice them into generous 1cm thick steaks which you salt (as much to draw out water as imagined bitterness) and leave for at least an hour. Then rinse and dry, then fry on griddle pan, scarcely oiled, to get “I did this, aren’t I cool” scorch lines, flip and repeat on the other side. Take your cooked steaks, and start to pack a sealable jar with them, layering with the herbs or spices you’re using and topping up with olive oil as you go. The flavours will do all the work here, so don’t use an expensive extra virgin grade, go for a cheaper, blended version. This is heresy as far as the Sicilian is concerned, but he’s not paying my olive oil bill!
As long as the aubergine is submerged below the oil, and the seal is airtight, these things will keep for months, languidly infusing. In the middle of winter, when in need of a fast and easy lunch, you can slide a couple of these beauties from their slick, and add them to a Scooby Doo style sandwich, piled high on the best bread you have, or can make or can afford, with cheeses, meats, pickles, and enjoy as a virtuous, velveteen delicacy of your inexplicable green fingeredness.