January is the month to keenly get ahead and start sowing your aubergine seeds indoors!
Aubergine (Eggplant, American and Australian or brinjal, Asian and African), Solanum melongena, is a member of the nightshade family, grown for its edible fruit. A Solanum, it is related to the tomato, pepper and potato. Like its cousin, the Tomato, the Aubergine’s popularity was stifled in Europe and North America until relatively recent years due to its association to nightshade. Where as the Tomato was believed to be poisonous, the Aubergine was believed by superstitious Europeans to induce insanity and was unaffectionately known as the “Mad Apple” until only a few centuries ago.
It is a delicate, tropical plant that is only half-hardy – meaning it stays put indoors in rainy England. The stem is often spiny, the flower whitens to a pretty light purple. Botanically classified as a berry, the fruit contains numerous small, soft seeds that, though edible, taste bitter because they contain nicotinoid alkaloids like the related tobacco.
Aubergines have been cultivated in southern and eastern Asia since prehistory. The Aubergine’s scientific name “Melongena” is an ancient name for Aubergine in Sanskrit. About 500 B.C. Aubergine spread into neighbouring China and became a culinary favourite to generations of Chinese emperors. The Chinese saw the Aubergine differently than the Indians did and soon developed their own unique varieties. In particular, they preferred smaller fruited Aubergine, as well as differing shapes and colours. The first known written record of the plant is found in Qimin Yaoshu, an ancient Chinese agricultural treatise completed in 544.
From India and Pakistan, the Aubergine soon spread West into the Middle East and the far west as Egypt and northward into Turkey. The Turks alone are believed to have over 1000 native recipes calling for the use of Aubergine in many different ways. The Moors introduced the Aubergine to Spain were it received its Catalonian name “Alberginia”. The numerous Arabic and North African names for it, along with the lack of the ancient Greek and Roman names, indicate it was introduced throughout the Mediterranean area by Arabs in the early Middle Ages. The vegetable soon spread throughout Europe. The 16th century Spaniards had great respect for the Aubergine and believed its fruit to be a powerful aphrodisiac, an “Apple of Love”. The Italians too, held the Aubergine in very regard and called them “Melanzana”. The English were responsible for coining the name “Eggplant” in regards to a variety with egg shaped, white fruit that they became familiar with, yet strangely, they refer to them today by the French name of Aubergine, which is a corruption of the Catalonian name “Alberginia”. A book on agriculture published in 12th century Arabic Spain described how to grow aubergines. There are records from later medieval Catalan and Spanish. The aubergine is unrecorded in England until the 16th century.
Because of the plant’s relationship with other nightshades, the fruit was at one time believed to be extremely poisonous. The flowers and leaves can be poisonous if consumed in large quantities. It has a special place in folklore. In 13th century Italian traditional folklore, the Aubergine can cause insanity. In 19th century Egypt it was said that insanity was “more common and more violent” when the Aubergine is in season during the summer months.
In 2013, global production of Aubergines was 49.4 million tonnes. More than 1,600,000 hectares (4,000,000 acres) are devoted to the cultivation of Aubergines in the world. 57% of output comes from China alone, followed by India, Iran, Egypt and Turkey as the following top producers.
Aubergines require a little attention when grown at home. They like sun and are easily knocked off their steady course to maturity so they should be grown under cover.
I start mine off under cover in January otherwise they never seem to grow/develop fruit during the year. February-March is kind of the final deadline. I start them off in compost in old tall yoghurt containers with holes punctured in the bottom to release water. I place them in a seed tray in the warmest room in our house (my dad’s bedroom is my propagator) and when they have germinated, I put them on the windowsill to get lots lot light during the day before putting them on the floor by the radiator again at night to keep them warm. Once they are big enough and the weather has improved, I pot them on in very large pots of compost in our greenhouse. As the plant grows, it must be supported by sturdy canes. Fortnightly comfrey or seaweed feeds will help to encourage the flowers to fruit. Mr Fothergills recommends spraying the flowers to encourage fruit to set. Be careful- those pretty purple petals are easily damaged.
I have tried growing ‘Black Beauty’, a popular breed. I was given some long, thin, purple-marbled styled ones (that I don’t know the name of) by a friend to grow last year. They unfortunately were not very delicious – they just would not ripen or swell properly. Other recommendations by research suggests: Moneymaker, Rosa Bianca and Slim Jim (especially if you live in the chillier North).
You will hopefully be able to harvest from August-October. Don’t wait for the aubergines to reach supermarket size, just like courgettes or cucumbers. Snip them off whenever they reach 8cm in length and up to 18cm or so. Mark Diacono, Otters Farm, suggests salting aubergine slices for half an hour, rinsing them, patting them dry, before using as this can get rid of bitterness.
It will mostly be the weather/growing conditions that injure your crop. Otherwise known pests are aphids and red spider mites. Companion planting with basil is one human approach or parasitic controls.
Aubergines are an excellent source of dietary fibre. They are also a good source of vitamins B1, B6 and potassium. It is high in minerals copper, magnesium and manganese. Aubergines are rich in antioxidants, specifically nasunin found in aubergine skin – which gives it its purple colour. A potent antioxidant and free radical scavenger, nasunin has been found to protect the lipids (fats) in brain cell membranes. Cell membranes are almost entirely composed of lipids and are responsible for protecting the cell and helping it to function. The lipid layer is crucial for letting nutrients in, wastes out and receiving instructions from messenger molecules that tell the cell what to do. Research indicates that phenolic-enriched extracts of Aubergines may help in controlling glucose absorption, beneficial for managing type 2 diabetes and reducing associated high blood pressure (hypertension). Aubergines may also help to lower LDL cholesterol levels, likely to due to nasunin and other phytochemical in the fruit.
Aubergines come in a wide array of shapes, sizes and colours. The varieties range from dark purple to pale mauve and from yellow to white. The longer purple variety is the most commonly eaten. Aubergines have a very neutral taste, which allows them to be combined with many other ingredients. They are especially good when prepared with garlic (think Baba Ganoush dip) and herbs such as marjoram and basil.
A fresh aubergine is firm and has a smooth, very glossy, dark purple skin and white, spongy flesh. A ripe aubergine has a matte gloss and yields slightly under finger pressure. Its weight must be in proportion to its size: excessively light aubergines can be limp and dehydrated.
Aubergine is used in plenty of cuisines worldwide. They are curried in India; they are also roasted, skinned, mashed, mixed with onions, tomatoes and spices and then slow cooked gives the South Asian dish gojju. Another version of the dish, begun-pora (charred or burnt), is very popular in Bangladesh where the pulp of the vegetable is mixed with raw chopped shallot, green chilies, salt, fresh coriander and mustard oil. Sometimes fried tomatoes and deep-fried potatoes are also added, creating a dish called begun bhorta. In a dish called bharli vangi, brinjal is stuffed with ground coconut, peanuts and masala and then cooked in oil. Aubergines are also deep fried as in the Italian parmigiana di melanzane, the Turkish karniyarik of the Turkish and Greek moussaka (yum). It can be sliced and deep fried, then served with plain yoghurt (optionally topped with a tomato and garlic sauce), such as in the Turkish patlıcan kızartması (meaning fried aubergines), or without yoghurt, as in patlıcan şakşuka. Perhaps the best-known Turkish aubergine dishes are imam bayildi (vegetarian) and karniyarik (with minced meat). There are PLENTY of recipes from different cuisines worldwide to choose from, take a look on they internet to be inspired! One of my favourites of all time is the dip baba ganoush: roasted aubergine, blended in a food processor along with tahini paste, lemon juice, diced raw garlic, salt and pepper and served with raw parsley sprinkled on top, a mixture of your favourite salad leaves and Manneesh (sesame and thyme coated flatbread) for dipping – delicious with homegrown boiled potatoes or rice too. It is like another version of humous (which we all know I’m a fan of…).
Aubergines are also stewed in the classic French Ratatouille and here I offer my recipe that I used to cook the (few) Aubergine I managed to grow/harvest 2016 season. If you are lucky, you will be able to make the entire dish using homegrown produce!
- Olive oil, for frying in
- 1/2 – 1 onion, sliced
- 1 aubergine, sliced into small chunks
- 1 courgette, sliced into discs
- 1 red pepper, sliced into small chunks
- 1-2 garlic cloves, diced
- 200-400g fresh tomatoes, sliced in half
- Salt and pepper, for seasoning
- Heat the oil in a large pan. Fry the sliced onion and aubergine, turning it down to simmer.
- Add the sliced courgette and pepper. Add the diced garlic and the tomatoes, stirring to combine.
- Leave to simmer for at least 15 minutes – 30 minutes, the longer the better, stirring now and then.
- Once the vegetables are tender and the tomatoes have broken down, releasing their juices to become a sauce, add salt and pepper for seasoning and remove from the heat and serve hot in dishes.