“I doubt that the imagination can be suppressed. If you truly eradicated it in a child, he would grow up to be an aubergine.” *
My first mouthful of berenjena de Almagro takes me by surprise. I don’t know why it should because I didn’t know what to expect in the first place. I can’t compare it to anything I’ve eaten before, because its flavour is totally distinct, with a soft, slightly chewy texture, and when I take a bite a squirt of spicy vinegarish liquid floods my mouth and dribbles down my chin.
Novel…there’s nothing quite like having a new gastronomic experience, and this is better than some I’ve tried.
The aubergine made its way from the region around India and Burma to Spain along the silk route, brought here, like many things, by Arab traders. In the Moorish cultures, the cultivation of the aubergine had great importance, and a number of Moorish poets of the 10th century wax lyrical about the vegetable’s virtues. A saying from the Near East declares that, ‘a woman must know at least one hundred ways to prepare an aubergine’, a sort of vegetable version of the restaurant in Valencia that offers one hundred and seventy-six different rice dishes – you can’t help but wonder ‘why’?
The only similarity between the large globular aubergine we usually think of, fat and deep maroon in colour, and the small aubergine that is covered by the Berenjena de Almagro Indicación Geográfica Protegida, is the name. It looks different, tastes different, has a different shape, different colour, and a different way of preparating it.
The one I’m holding by its stalk is about four centimetres long, round and smooth, and with a course outer skin that covers about two-thirds of the yellowish-green plum-shaped vegetable. Stuffed inside is a slice of red pepper, slightly hanging out as if putting its tongue out at me. This is the definitive Berenjena de Almagro, and a curious looking thing it is.
I’m in the kitchen of the Parador de Almagro, with Antonio Villarejo, who has been Head Chef here for 30 years, and before me is an earthenware dish full of aubergines, just waiting to dribble their juices over my chin. These have been preserved, as the picking season is only during June and July, but it’s these, grown in one specific area of Castilla-La Mancha, and not the fresh version, that come under the domain of the I.G.P (Indicación Geográfica Protegida), and are known, and apparently thoroughly loved, throughout Spain.
“It’s very much an artisan type of product, because almost everything from planting to peeling and preparing is done by hand,” Antonio explains. “There are three stages in the preparation; el pelado, the peeling, where you take off the rough outer skin, called ‘the beard’, and the stalk, and then split the vegetable. Then they are boiled for up to twenty minutes.
“The second stage, el embuchado, is where the aubergine is stuffed with slices of red pepper of the cornacho seco or guindilla palera varieties, and oil, then closed by having a thin stick of fennel pushed through almost at the top of the opening.
“For the final stage, el aliño, they are placed in an earthenware pot, an orza, with a mixture of salt, wine vinegar, garlic, cumin and ground pepper, and then covered with olive oil. They are left in this marinade for a few days, which gives them their special flavour, and also takes away the slight bitterness of the vegetable.”
The aubergine prepared in this way has been part of the basic diet of La Mancha for centuries, usually prepared in the home and stored in earthenware pots. It wasn’t until as late as the mid- nineteen hundreds that they began to be seen and tasted outside the area, when an enterprising producer began to take his produce to Madrid in big pots, to be sold in bars and restaurants as tapas.
By the late 1960s the berenjena de Almagro was being bottled and canned to extended its commercial life beyond the three months of an earthenware pot, and opened up the market for year-round sales.
Something that your grandma and granddad boiled and bottled probably seems anything but something that should be protected, but Antonio Villarejo thinks that while the gastronomic cultural inheritance should be guarded, it should also be a source of new ideas.
“Spain is a country full of regional specialities, often dictated by the climate or geographical variety of the region. I think it’s important to maintain these regional dishes, but I think there are a lot of different ways to use the products other than simply eating them as a tapa with a glass of wine.”
With this in mind, Antonio serves the squashy vegetable in a number of unusual ways, both savoury and sweet.
“As a pudding we serve Crema gratinada de Berenjena de Almagro, which is similar to a Creme Catalan. To take out the spicy vinegar flavour, I simmer the aubergine in water, which takes out the acidity, and when I cook it we add sugar, anis and lemon peel, to sweeten it. I also make berenjenas cooked with honey in batter, and an aubergine ice cream, which usually surprises people.” It certainly surprises me in the same way my first taste of curry chocolate did; a bit weird at first but with a pleasant aftertaste.
During the short picking season Antonio will also use the vegetable fresh which, he says, has a texture similar to artichoke, and is suitable for cooking in many ways. Its unusual flavour makes it an excellent garnish for such dishes as partridge and hake, or for trout, which is another local speciality.
It seems that there’s almost no end to the delights of this peculiar little veg, although I find the idea of an espuma de berenjena, an aubergine foam, as an aperitivo just one step too far for my imagination – until Antonio offers me one. Hmm…would it be thought inelegant to like the glass out?
* This quote is by Ursula K. LeGuin, an American Writer born in 1929, best known for tales of science fiction. Her actual words were, “I doubt that the imagination can be suppressed. If you truly eradicated it in a child, he would grow up to be an eggplant.” As eggplant is the Americanisation of aubergine, I allowed myself a little poetic license in using the quote.