When it comes to quality produce, there are two adjectives that weave their magic and elevate simple food to a higher level: seasonal and regional. Two simple concepts that are becoming rare in some parts of the world where we willingly exchange flavour for year round availability.
But not in Italy.
In the Sicilian town of Mazara del Vallo, I stroll down the streets with an eye on food. Local produce abounds in grocery shops often spilling onto the footpath. Cousin D takes us around and points out what is available now and what will be gone in a few weeks.
Back at her apartment in the Kasbah part of Mazara, I am introduced to the humble eggplant. Melanzane, or Sicilian eggplants are characterised by a rotund shape and distinctive light purple colour that reminds me of a magical night sky.
Their skin is tender and thin and the flesh feels firm to the touch.
There are many ways to enjoy melanzane but tonight’s culinary lesson is one in simplicity and an education in basic taste. With a glass of local Santagostino Rosso Baglio Sorico in one hand and a camera not far from the other, I watch her prepare the dish.
She cuts the eggplant into rounds of medium thickness. I note the dense white flesh and the relative lack of seeds. She explains that salting the eggplant is not necessary as the flesh lacks the bitterness of other type of aubergines.
She cuts each piece in half and without using any oil, she cooks them over a thin hot plate that I have seen her use from warming the morning’s bread to reheating food.
The eggplant only takes a few minutes to cook on each side. While still warm, she drizzles a little extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled chopped parsley.
“This is the healthy version,” she says, explaining the minimal use of oil without compromising on flavour. I nod, turning a blind eye to the tray of dolci siciliani on the kitchen counter.
When it comes to taste, the Sicilian eggplant is the sweetest I have ever eaten. The simple and light dish delivers on taste and educates the palate in fresh and seasonal produce.
Travelling and eating around Italy and France, I have come to appreciate and enjoy what is available in season. A visit to the food mercato in Mogliano Veneto during October, with chestnuts and mushrooms in season will yield a different experience come June. The local people know what is best at a particular time of the year and dispense with produce of poorer quality.
It is time we all returned to these basics.
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