Aubergine

January is the month to keenly get ahead and start sowing your aubergine seeds indoors!

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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!

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Ratatouille 

(Serves 2)

  • 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
  1. Heat the oil in a large pan. Fry the sliced onion and aubergine, turning it down to simmer.
  2. Add the sliced courgette and pepper. Add the diced garlic and the tomatoes, stirring to combine.
  3. Leave to simmer for at least 15 minutes – 30 minutes, the longer the better, stirring now and then.
  4. 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.

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Apples

The apple tree (Malus pumila, commonly called Malus domestica) is a deciduous tree in the rose family. It is best known for its pomaceous fruit, the apple and is cultivated world wide as a popular fruit tree – it was probably the first type of tree grown internationally for fruit. There are more than 7,500 known cultivars of apples, resulting in a range of desired characteristics. Different cultivars are bred for various tastes and uses, including cooking, eating raw and for cider production.

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Homegrown, 2016, eater

All sweet apples originated from a small area of Tian Shan on Kazakhstan’s (Turkey) border with China. It is likely that they gradually spread into Europe by travellers through the Middle East and several manuscripts from ancient Greece, including Homer’s ‘Odyssey‘, refer to apples and describe apple orchards. Evidence has been found that apples grew wild in Britain in the Neolithic period but it was the Romans who first introduced varieties with sweeter and greater taste to our little island. The earliest known mention of apples in England was by King Alfred in about 885 AD in his English translation of ‘Gregory’s Pastoral Care‘. Apple trees are considered to be one of the earliest trees cultivated. Alexander the Great is credited with finding dwarfed apples in Kazakhstan in 328BC. Those he brought back to Macedonia might have been the progenitors of dwarfing root stocks. Winter apples that are picked in late autumn and stored just above freezing temperatures have been an important food in Asia and Europe for many centuries.

After the Roman occupation of Britain, many orchards were abandoned due to invasions by Jutes, Saxons and Danes. Following the Norman conquest of 1066, improved varieties were introduced from France, including the ‘Costard’. Orchards were developed within the grounds of monasteries and the raising of new varieties was undertaken by cross-pollination – orchards of the monastery at Ely were particularly famous. More orchards were cultivated over time and by the 13th century, the ‘Costard’ variety was being grown in many different parts of England. Sellers of this apple were known as ‘costermongers’, hence the word ‘costermonger’. The Wars of the Roses and the Black Death led to a decline in the production of apples in England until Henry VIII instructed his fruiterer, Richard Harris, to identify and introduce new varieties, which were planted in his orchard at Teynham in Kent as he was an avid fan of apples, hiring French gardeners specifically to take care of his various trees . Simultaneously, the red skinned ‘Pippin’ was introduced from France but the most common apple in Tudor times was the ‘Queene’. Fun fact: Catherine the Great loved ‘Golden Pippin’ apples so much she had them brought over to her palace in Russia, each one wrapped in real silver paper.

Until the agricultural revolution in the 18th century methods of producing apples were  pretty relaxed. Towards the end of the 18th century, Thomas Andrew Knight undertook a series of careful experiments in pollination which led to the development of many improved varieties. His work greatly influenced many nurserymen in the 19th century including Thomas Laxton who raised several well-known varieties including ‘Laxton’s Superb’. The introduction of new varieties reached its height in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Through the work of gardeners employed by major estates in England and by nurseryman who concentrated on producing apples with outstanding taste this was achieved. ‘Ribston Pippin’, a favourite apple of the early Victorians, was superseded by possibly the most famous of all eating apples, ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’. This outstanding variety was introduced in 1850 after being raised by Richard Cox, a retired brewer from Bermondsey. The ‘Bramley Seedling’, a single purpose culinary apple that remains the most popular apple in the world for cooking was first exhibited in 1876 after it was grown from a pip of unknown origin in 1809. Throughout the Victorian age, fruit growing tended to be carried out in small orchards attached to agricultural holdings. Queen Victoria was a fan of the fruit. She particularly liked baked apples as a dish. A Victorian nurseryman called Lane named a variety ‘Lane’s Prince Albert’. A form of roasted, semi-dried apple – the Norfolk Biffin – is mentioned by Charles Dickens as a Christmas delicacy. Apart from the apples sold at market, the fruit was grown to supplement the farmers’ own needs and to provide cider for his labourers in lieu of wages, a practice which became illegal in 1917. After the First World War (1914-18), several specialist research centres were developed which investigated improved orchard production methods, the control of pests and diseases as well as the raising of new varieties. After the Second World War (1939-1945), new rootstocks were introduced. These enabled the height of apple trees to be reduced. This allowed harvesting to take place from the ground thus making long ladders redundant and reducing the costs of labour for picking and pruning. Additionally, the smaller trees allowed sunlight to reach a greater proportion of the growing fruit which increased the density and consistency of fruit colour. Trees could be planted closer together which resulted in greater productivity. The market was greatly improving.

Until the 20th century, farmers stored apples in frostproof cellars during the winter for their own use or for sale. Improved transportation of fresh apples by train and road replaced the necessity for storage. In the 21st century, long-term storage again came into popularity, as ‘controlled atmosphere’ facilities were used to keep apples fresh year-round. Controlled atmosphere facilities use high humidity, low oxygen, and controlled carbon dioxide levels to maintain fruit freshness.

Once the UK became a member of the EEC, there was no restriction on the importing of apples from abroad during the English season. This led to English growers facing great competition from high-yielding varieties which were difficult to grow in UK, as they required a warmer climate. ‘Golden Delicious’, ‘Red Delicious’ and ‘Granny Smith’ were the three most important of these varieties which were heavily promoted and advertised.  English growers were producing much lower yielding varieties which had been bred for taste rather than yield and as a result they were unable to compete with the relatively low priced imports. Many English orchards were taken out of production due to lack of profitability and replanted with other crops during the final twenty-five years of the 20th century. In the 1990s, ‘Gala’ and ‘Braeburn’, varieties which had been raised in New Zealand, were introduced to the UK market and rapidly increased in popularity. Trial orchards were planted in England and despite initial cultural difficulties English growers have managed to produce these varieties with some great success. Subsequently, other new varieties were trialled and planted including for example ‘Jazz’ (which are my second favourite, other than ‘Pink Lady’, the greatest apple if you are ever buying them from a store),’ Kanzi’, ‘Rubens’, ‘Cameo’ and ‘Zari’.

Many modern orchards have been planted more intensively than previously in history with up to 3,500 trees per hectare. A lot of research was undertaken to minimise the use of chemicals and to make greater use of beneficial insects thanks to modern science and additionally growers have invested in new packhouses and cold stores, all designed to operate efficiently and minimise the use of energy. As a result of all these factors, since 2003 there has been a massive revival in the English apple industry. English apples have increased their share of the total market from a low point of 23% in 2003 to 38% in 2011.

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Dwarf apple tree

There are over 7000 varieties to choose from. It is overwhelming. Mark Diacono, trust River Cottage Fruit Handbook author has some suggestions categorised into easy boxes to make the decision slightly less demanding:

Eaters – ‘Orleans Reinette, ‘Beauty of Bath’, ‘Blenheim Orange’, ‘Ashmead’s Kernel’, ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’ (note, self-fertile), ‘Lord Lambourne’, ‘Old Somerset Russet’

Cookers – ‘Bramley’, ‘Annie Elizabeth’

Ciders – ‘Kingston Black’, ‘Browns’

Dual-purpose – ‘Veitch’s Perfection’

I will quickly confess, most of our apple trees were planted before I started working in our veg garden and I don’t know what brands they are. We have one green, one deep pink, one red/green that is a dwarfing rootstock, two old apple trees that have been hanging on from before our time, more than 2 decades, and one ‘Braeburn’ we planted last winter. All of mine are late producers so we are considering investing in some early ones this year.

If you are limited for space, opt for self-fertile trees or a ‘family tree’ – trees that have two ore more varieties grafter onto one main trunk, giving you the option to have different apples on each of the main branches.

In the context of growing fruit trees, apples are relatively easy to take care of. They are happiest as freestanding trees but they can be trained too as stopovers, cordons, espaliers and arches. You only need to visit RHS Wisley and you can witness the artwork of training an apple tree. Training can make apple adaptable to smaller spaces. I like mine to look traditional – standing in the ground like the beginnings of an orchard. Spacing the trees depends on rootstock. 3-9m apart for freestanding trees is the general outline, 50cm when training. Plant your tree up to the knot in a deep hole filled with well-rotted fertiliser. Fill in and heel down so that the earth is trodden in around the base. Mulch around the base, water through dry spells in the early years and feed it with Blood, Fish and Bone, well-rotted manure and mulch every spring to encourage a good crop for the year and significant growth. See my pear page for notes on pruning – it is the exact same. Pears

Pruning should focus on removing diseased, dead and damaged wood as well as crossing branches and congestion in the centre. Prune undesired branches back flush with the trunk to main branch, but if they are large and likely to leave a big wound, leave them cut  to short stubs to minimise the risk of disease getting in.

x2 apple trees, 2015

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Early apples are ready from late July through to September. Eat them straight away, consider them like early ‘Charlotte’ or ‘Jersey’ potatoes. They don’t keep very long. Later varieties are ready from October. They may in fact need a little storage time after picking until they are at their best. Many can be stored for up to half a year. If the pips are brown inside the apple when cut open instead of white, they are ready. When picking apples, take any that give with a gentle, cupped, twisting motion with your hand. Don’t pull, if it doesn’t drop into your hand with a small amount of pressure, it is not ready yet. Picking too early can damage and reduce next years crop.

To store apples, keep them in a cool, dry place. We kept ours in a garage last year (we collect all of the neighbourhood’s excess to give to the pigs who adore them). Store them in a single layer so that they aren’t touching each other, ideally on slatted shelving (air circulation) or newspaper. Check regularly for spoiling. If you have too many that are spoiling too quickly, you can cook them into a pulp and freeze them, cut into rings and dry them in a dehydrator or on the lowest setting in the oven, cook and strain through muslin to make an apple sauce to freeze (good for my apple cake, see below), make into apple jelly or bramble jelly or use fresh – ideas in a moment.

Moth larvae is bad in apple trees. Cut out any you see in the fruit and shrug your shoulders before eating or cooking with the apples. It is the perks of homegrown produce – caterpillars, slugs and snails, plus the odd worm or beetle cropping up in your pickings. Apple scab is the most problematic. Something one of our apple trees has in particular. It doesn’t do anything in particular, it just makes the fruit look sometimes unappealing but I promise ours taste just as good. Some varieties can be more resistant (‘Ashmead’s Kernel’ for example or ‘Egremont Russet’). Nectria canker is a fungal disease that can also crop up.

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Apples are notable for their impressive list of phtyto-nutrients and anti-oxidants. Studies suggest that its components are essential for optimal growth, development, and overall wellness. As the saying goes, ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’. The apple is rich in dietary fibre which helps prevent absorption of dietary-LDL or bad cholesterol in the gut. The fibre also saves the colon mucous membrane from exposure to toxic substances by binding to cancer-causing chemicals inside the colon. They contain good quantities of vitamin C and beta-carotene. Consumption of foods rich in vitamin C helps the body develop resistance against infectious agents. Apples are also a good source of B-complex vitamins such as riboflavin, thiamin and vitamin B6. Together these vitamins help as co-factors for enzymes in the metabolism. Apples also carry a small amount of minerals like potassium, phosphorus, and calcium. Potassium is an important component of cell and body fluids helps controlling heart rate and blood pressure.

Different varieties of apples should be eaten in different ways. Some should only be cooked, some can be eaten raw or cooked (some might taste poorly when cooked and some are great both ways). For our homegrown varieties, we only grow eaters. We looked into buying a ‘Bramley’ but decided that we were very happy to cook with any slightly strong tasting eaters – our green ones in particular are a little too sharp for eating raw. I love a bright pink/red apple raw – ‘Pink Lady’, anyone else? Bramble Jelly (apple and blackberry jelly/jam), apple mint jelly (eat with lamb), apple jelly (eater apples made into jelly/jam and eaten on toast and butter or used as a filling for apple tart or pie, it is gorgeous), River Cottage suggests apple with black pudding, pork, cabbage and cheese, apple ice cream apparently is good too. Mincemeat fillings, stuffed apples for winter dishes… The apple is pretty great. Ways to eat raw apple alongside other food: yummy with cheddar cheese/ cheese fondu, dipped in humous, slathered in Greek yoghurt, melted chocolate, it is a key ingredient to a Waldorf Salad (apple, celery and walnuts) and a great addition to the ploughman’s lunch (fun fact: the ploughman’s lunch was an advertising stunt invented in the 1960s by the cheese industry). For cooking, apple crumble is the first that springs to mind, apple and blackberry crumble (see my recipe here: Recipe: Apple and Blackberry Crumble), apple tart/ tarte tatin, apple pie, I’ve never tried apple charlotte or Eve’s Pudding but these are more classics to consider. I often resort to the good old apple crumble with custard, if I am honest, for autumnal puddings. It is one of the dishes I remember my gran making for us when we used to stay with her more often but it brings back fond memories of coming home from a school trip and my mum had whipped one up as a surprise – it is one of her puddings she made me as a child that I ate and loved and one of the first I ate after being very poorly for sometime and started eating pudding every night as a result of it. Otherwise, the best apple pudding is apple cake. I had my first ever slice of Dorset apple cake, in Dorset (no surprise there) at the Hive Beach Cafe, close to Bridport. It is the best Dorset apple cake I have ever eaten. I tried to replicate it when I got home but it was never as good as theirs. But I discovered this recipe, Apple, Almond and Cinnamon. It is not a Dorset apple cake but it is yummy in its own way. The texture and cinnamon-y taste with the added nutmeg and the flaked almonds is scrumptious. I particularly like it slightly warm.

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Apple, Almond and Cinnamon Cake

(Serves 10, makes a 20cm/9inch deep cake)

-450g eater/dual-purpose apple of choice (about 2 medium sized apples), cored and finely sliced into thin segments – 6 large eggs – 335g dark soft brown sugar – 335g salted butter – 340g self-raising flour – 55g ground almonds – 1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon – ¼ tsp ground nutmeg – 2 tbsp good-quality apple sauce (homemade is best)

– About 2 tbsp flaked almonds – Icing sugar, for dusting

  1. Line a 20cm/9inch deep cake tin with baking parchment. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4.
  2. Put the eggs, sugar and butter into a large bowl and using an electric whisk, mix until combined.
  3. Add the flour, ground almonds, cinnamon, nutmeg and apple sauce and mix together until the batter is lump-free.
  4. Pour half the batter into the tin. Place a layer of sliced apples on top. Pour in the remainder of the batter. Smooth the surface. Top with another layer of sliced apples. Scatter the flaked almonds over the top.
  5. Bake in the oven for 1-1 1/2 hours, or until a skewer comes out clean. If the top is burning, put a sheet of baking parchment over the top or turn the oven temperature down to 170C (I do have problems cooking this cake – I either burn the top or undercook the middle, try and see what works for you, chef!).
  6. Leave to cool in the tin before transferring on to a wire rack. Dust with a little icing sugar before serving. It is lovely still warm or cold. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

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Homemade Apple Sauce

-1kg apples -600ml water

  1. Cut the apples into large chunks and place them in a large pan with 600ml water. bring the water to the boil along with the apples before turning down and leaving to simmer for at least an hour, until the apples have broken down and become ‘mush’.
  2. Put the ‘mush’ into a muslin cloth hanging over a large bowl and allow it to drip for at least 12 hours, preferably overnight.
  3. Tip the contents of the bowl into containers and store in the freezer to use for the cake above or any other recipe.