I love Italian food. Ever since my first exposure to it way back when I was a small child spending the summer holidays with my family in a friend’s apartment in Southern Italy. We stayed in Pontecagnano, a small industrial town on the coast, almost as far South as you could get without being in Sicily. The main industry seemed to be a tomato canning plant just outside town or at least it was, until it got blown up. We awoke to an entire town covered in tomatoes and tomato residue. Everything was tinged a watery pink for days and for weeks afterwards dented tins of San Marzano tomatoes would wash up on the beaches. Everyone said they didn’t know why the explosion had occurred, but the speculation of it being the work of La Famiglia was rife.
We made friends easily, helped by my Dad speaking Italian like a native and his pretending to be a long lost son of the area so our car didn’t get vandalised. You did not leave on the GB sticker. One year we forgot, on our first night, and came down to a car made toothless by broken windows.
We got to try the real food of Italy, not just the restaurants, but what people ate at home and in celebration. You’ve not lived – or known what full feels like - until you have eaten a traditional Italian wedding feast. That really is the gift that keeps on giving, sometimes even after a few of the guests are in a food coma.
The drawback to discovering all of that wonderful food is that it does spoil you for any Italian food that you get in England, that I admit, but I keep on trying different places here anyway, ever hopeful that it will have that taste that I remember.
The most elusive thing for me has been the tomato. Once you have had a simple sauce in Italy, when you try to recreate it here, very often the tomatoes are the things that can let it down. Napolina had seemed to be the best brand so far, but even then they didn’t taste quite right. Recently Cirio has become available here, and they are very good indeed. What I wasn’t expecting was Sainsbury’s Finest.
I spotted Pomodori D’Oro when I was doing an online shop, and bought a tin on the offchance. I can safely say that they are absolutely lovely. The smell when I opened the tin took me straight back to those heady summers in Italy, and the juice that they come in is thick, almost like a purée, not a watery residue to be drained off.
The colour is pure, yellow sunshine, and that inspired me to put together a version of a much loved recipe. I had some aubergines, and some olives and that, to me, says caponata. It’s a sweet sour Sicilian dish, and utterly addictive when eaten with chunks of fresh bread. I’d love it even more of Giorgio Locatelli or Francesco Mazzei were to make it for me, but that’s never going to happen, though a girl can dream, yes?
I had some of the lovely olive oil that Olive Branch had sent me left, which just made cooking this all the more worthwhile. I spent a very happy Saturday afternoon pottering in the kitchen and to my great delight the weather stayed nice and the light remained good, despite my faffing about. So here, for your delight and my tummy, is a very simple Deconstructed Caponata.
1 medium aubergine
1 tin whole yellow plum tomatoes
Aged balsamic (I used Carluccio’s. Thick and syrupy wonderfulness. You need the sweetness.)
Small black olives
Thick bread slices (I used home made)
Cut the aubergine in half lengthways, and slash deeply with a sharp knife, taking care not to cut through the skin. Douse liberally with olive oil, and sprinkle with sea salt. Place on a baking tray and grill until golden brown and quite soft.
While the aubergine is cooking, put the tomatoes in a shallow pan, add some olives, olive oil and drizzle with balsamic. If you can’t find the syrupy aged vinegar, then try some balsamic syrup. Merchant Gourmet do a good one and most big supermarkets have it.
Add in a good handful of black olives.
I was lucky enough to have some home-grown, oil cured olives from my very own tree to use, (yes, it appears you can grow olives in Essex if you wait about ten years for the tree to fruit…) but any decent black olive will do although please, buy them with the stones in, as the flavour is infinitely superior. By all means de-stone them before cooking, but don’t use those ready stoned ones you can buy, they all seem to look like otters’ noses and taste of rubber. You know the ones. The kind that you get on takeaway pizza, all texture and no taste.
Heat the tomatoes and olives gently until everything is bubbling. Don’t stir it, just let it cook and the flavours will happily merge into one another.
Drizzle or drench your bread slices with olive oil. I used home made bread because that’s what I had, but any decent bread that you like will work.
Toast the slices in a very hot griddle pan until golden and griddle-marked. Of course you do not have to do this, you can just toast them in that wonderful modern invention, The Toaster, but I prefer the flavour you get from a griddle pan and also, well, I am a bit poncey at times.
Once the bread is toasted, the dish just needs putting together.
Toast, aubergine, tomatoes, and top with any sauce and olives. Drizzle on more olive oil because you can, then eat and enjoy.
With many thanks to http://myolivebranch.co.uk/ for sending me their lovely oil, and to Sourced market in Kings Cross station for selling me some more!