My Polpette Experience
7th July 2016
Zia Rosaria’s kitchen is big and square. Even though it’s located on one of the sunniest points of continental Europe, it’s well shaded, which in this heat is perfect.
The kitchen is white and cool; with the threat of the Southern Italian summer scorch only being kept at bay by a domestic fan. It’s a welcome, annual smell that meets me. A mix of Italian washing powder made with marsiglia soap, entwined with tomatoes bubbling away on the stove, bushels of basil perfuming the air and aubergine frying on the top.
The women are wearing the loose fitting, light summer dresses older Italian women wear in the choking, arid heat of the South. I can feel the rising burn of the sun creeping its way up my back, my cheap cotton vest bought from the market in villa has transformed itself into a cactus and irritates every patch of red skin.
Uncle Peter, in his deep, broad Yorkshire/Calabrese drawl offered sage advice as we waded in the sea up to our thighs.
“Day 1, 20 minutes in the sun, Day 2, 30 minutes in the sun, take it slow Joseph”
He is still one of the only people to call me Joseph, and usually when people refer to you in your full name you should take note of what they are saying. I hadn’t and now I was paying for it with the skin off my back.
I’d been swimming all morning as my Mum, aunts, friends and family had parked themselves under the beach umbrellas and parasols of Catona.
A funny sight to see them all out of their winter coats, trudging up and down my hometown’s main street in the cold, wet gloom of the East Yorkshire summer. The children of the diaspora had returned and they wanted everything the land of their ancestors could give them.
Myself however, just wanted to be fed.
Aunty Rosaria sensed my hunger in that wonderful instinctive way Italian women can.
On returning from the beach she had retrieved a bowl of cold spaghetti from the fridge, broken 5 deep ochre yellow eggs into the stiff pasta and added a handful of pecorino before frying it in olive oil. My Olympic swimming session induced hunger meant it hardly touched the sides, a good half-kilo of pasta and eggs.
They applaud this kind of behavior in the South where big appetites are seen as healthy, strong and manly, and a little more cheese was brought out as a reward for this behemoth of a slightly tubby Yorkshire boy.
When it’s been a while since you’ve been in Italy, you forget that such acts are filled with folly. Aunty Rosaria was preparing a post-beach meal that would make the Christmas spread at a Toby Carvery look like a vegan buffet for two.
As I sat fully sated at the head of the white kitchen table, it started to dawn on me what was happening.
The increased activity in the kitchen; the number of pans mounting onto the stoves, oven door toing and froing, fridge blinking away.
The table starts to build up in that Southern Italian time honored fashion. Paper tablecloths laid, plastic cups placed upside down, no label bottles of strong green bottle wine, plastic plates with metal cutlery, olives, cheese, salami, meats, bread – the list went on and on.
That fritatta was, in hindsight, a mistake.
In 10 minutes the table was groaning under the weight of one of the biggest spreads of food I had seen to date. My reputation and place at the head of the table dictated that I did not, could not and would not shy away from this epicurean marathon. Eager eyes looked right at me, buoying me to tie on the nosebag and begin.
Now, I’ve been going back to Grandpa’s village since I was a bambino. I have seen many local dishes and pretty much ate my way round the family tables – but this day something caught my eye.
Placed next to the huge, ever present plastic tray of salami was a curious conical tower of brown balls. If they had been wrapped in gold I would have assumed an ambassador was popping round for lunch.
Borrowing from the Arabic cooking traditions that are so ingrained in Southern Italian cooking, fried delicacies made up of vegetables, rice, meat, all manners of cheese, herbs and usually bound with eggs are pretty prominent on the dinner table.
I’ve always loved these kind of things because they tend to look so non descript and unapptesing, like they wouldn’t look out of place nestled amongst a pile of Campbell’s tinned meatballs, but without fail they usually end up tasting like deep fried manna.
I picked one up tentatively; hand slightly shaking as I noticed the pan of pasta was being prepared to be tossed with deep, sweet red tomato sugo. I wanted that so much but was immediately aware of something else in the oven.
How many courses were there? What was she planning? I may need to forgo eating this inconspicuous dull looking ball for the good of the meal.
Like many times in my life greed got the better of me. It was crunchy on the exterior, deep and savory with the pecorino giving a lovely salty, ever so slightly acidic tang, before the full weight of the smooth, creamy aubergine laced with basil over powered me.
It was soft in the middle and very light. So light as to probably not upset the fine balance of my stomach and I proceeded to eat about 14, not the first food mistake I’d made that day…or would make.
The meal went without a hitch. Pasta asciutta (dried pasta with tomato) followed, before cutlets, potatoes, more aubergines and peppers took up their positions on the disposable kitchenware.
Uncle Peter, being a former Ice Cream magnate back in Hull, broke out the straciatella before coffee, little cakes and some cheese. One hell of a big meal where the shining light was the humble aubergine polpette.
I propped myself into a plastic chair on the balcony with a grappa and got ready for the post-lunch snooze. The phone rang; it was Rosaria’s brother Nando.
Through my sketchy understanding of Italian I worked out that he had bought a few kilos of prawns and his wife was making fresh pasta with clams – would the Inglese like to come for dinner?
Of course we would.
Here’s the recipe for polpette.
- 2 Aubergine
- 1 Handful of fine, natural breadcrumbs
- 60g Grated Italian hard cheese (Pecorino, Grana, Parmigiano Reggiano)
- 1 roasted, peeled and chopped red chilli (dried chilli flakes fine)
- 1 Egg
- Good handful of torn basil
- Salt and pepper
- Sunflower oil
- 1 crushed clove of garlic
- Turn the oven to 200 degrees and wrap the aubergine in tin foil, pop straight in the oven and allow to cook for about 20-30 minutes until soft.
- Get a pyrex bowl ready. Peel the aubergines (this is really easy and the skin should just come off in your hands) and mash the flesh.
- Using a sieve, squeeze out as much water as possible from the aubergine and put the pulp back into your pyrex bowl.
- Add the Parmesan, roast chili pepper, basil, breadcrumbs, Parmesan, egg, salt and pepper and mix well. Taste and season if needs be.
- Form into little balls and shallow fry in the sunflower oil for 3-4 minutes on each side before putting back into the oven for a further 15 minutes (lower the heat to about 140)