Of those vegetables beginning with A, aubergines are my favourite with their pleasing shiny, purple skins and pithy, spongy inner flesh. I think it was in the late 1970s when the colour mauve became aubergine. In Bolton at any rate. I had a wet-look mac in this new-fangled colour and wore it over an aubergine coloured midi dress with integrated pale pink blouse and hot pants. It was an all-in-one, but not a onesie. Around the same time I became aware of aubergines, and red and green peppers which were considered exotic, but took a while longer to appear on the market stall where I had a Saturday job.
Back in the room with the aubergines, they are vegetable royalty in many cultures and take centre stage in dishes from Middle Eastern stuffed aubergines Imam Bayildi to the smoky Baba Ganush dip, Greek Moussaka to French Ratatouille, African Groundnut Stew to Indian Brinjal Bhajia.
Either the tiny edible seeds inside or the egg-shape of the pod itself have given rise to the alternative name of eggplant. Botanically speaking the aubergine is a berry. It is high in fibre, vitamins B1, B6, and the minerals magnesium and potassium. Along with most fruit and veg, the aubergine is rich in antioxidants – said to help neutralise damaging free radicals in our bodies and boost overall health. For this reason aubergines play a key role in the Mediterranean diet, including helping to lower cholesterol (though less so if loaded with high fat foods like meat, cream and cheese). As a bonus the antioxidant nasunin is responsible for the purple colour of the skin, for which we give thanks.
In a previous London life a trip down the road to Southall in search of aubergines from the market stores took in a riot of colours and aromas. The dash was not complete without a fix of samosas from the original Shahanshah, North Road, to take home as a treat. Some would make it, others would be eaten in the car on the way home, fresh and warm from the frier.
I always associate this dish with Barbara Mottershead AKA “Babs”, whose party piece it was. So the following recipe lives on as Parmigiana à la Babs, in remembrance of good dinners shared and as a template for those to come. And so the labour of love begins. Three factors will lead to ultimate success: the cooking of the aubergine slices which must result in them being really tender; the thick richness of the sauce; and finally the care that goes into the making which is a requisite part of the recipe and not to be messed with.