Rachel Roddy’s Sicilian bake
By the time I arrived, Gisella, along with her sister and mother, had already peeled 30 kilos of tomatoes, which were draining in large sieves, steadily depositing pale red drips into the bowls beneath. Temperatures have remained doggedly around 45C (113F) in Sicily this last week, so steady too were the drips of sweat running down the sides and napes of everyone’s necks. “It’s the hottest 8 August since 1800,” noted Gisella’s husband Rodolfo, who was standing in the street, just outside the garage door.
“Do you want to watch or help?” Gisella asked. “Help,” I said, at which point an office chair on wheels was rolled from the workbench up to a large, blue plastic tub in the middle of the garage. At first glance, it seemed the tub was full of soupy sauce. I soon realised it was simply water stained red with seeds, skin and juice. The tomatoes – a round, fluted variety were bobbing at the bottom of the tub and needed fishing out.
I watched and copied, peeling away the skin, then opening up the flesh to shove out the seeds and gouge out the hard core, both of which fell back in the water. I have known Gisella, a local baker, for three years, which means she is now allowed to be inexorably curious about my family tree. It is reciprocal though: while we peel another 25 kilos I am filled in on the domestic details of Gisella and Rodolfo’s combined 15 siblings, the majority of whom still live in Gela, many near enough to smell the bread as it comes out of the oven.
Once peeled and strained, the remaining flesh of the tomatoes will be cooked with olive oil, onion and basil, in a pan the size of a car tyre, set up on a gas ring in the corner of the garage. This is to be a finished and seasoned sauce or salsa, which will be bottled, ready to be tipped on to the pizza Gisella makes at the bakery. There are a great number of pizzas to be made for Ferragosto on 15 August, a national holiday, when families go en masse to the beach with deep trays of pizza and also watermelons the size of fat babies.
Oh, to be knee-deep in cool sand ... the heat in the garage was almost unbearable by the time the onion, sizzling in oil in the pan, was deemed ready (because it smelled and looked right). As if to prove it, another sister came into the garage, nose-first, curious about what was going on. The tomatoes were tipped into the pan, and the basil added too. As it simmered, the sauce was watched, and tasted, salt added, and its acidity discussed.
Two streets away, at our house, my aubergine summer continues, and I make Richard Olney’s gratin again. In many ways, Olney’s detailed recipes, like beautiful technical drawings, couldn’t be further from Gisella’s sketched “pinch of this, litre of that”. On the other hand, the two have much in common – the same deep appreciation and understanding of basic kitchen alchemy, such as how tomatoes become a sauce. Also, an aubergine, tomato and ricotta gratin is as at home in this part of Sicily as it is in Olney’s France. Olney is very clear: the aubergine should be fried in a generous amount of olive oil – aubergines absorb like sponges, so let it be delicious stuff – until they are tender and golden; that the tomatoes should be peeled and cooked until enough water has gone that they are properly saucy; and that the ricotta cream mixture is the consistency of thick pouring cream, the basil ripped into little pieces, and the parmesan sprinkled before the sauce.
The siren scent of fried aubergine and tomato sauce meld happily under a custardy topping, which swells and puts on golden spots. It is ravishing. Sure enough, Vincenzo’s cousin Elio puts his nose through the window. Next thing, he is sitting at the table – fork in one hand, a chunk of Gisella’s bread in the other – at the ready.
The custardy topping swells and puts on golden spots. It is ravishing.
Richard Olney’s aubergine, tomato and ricotta gratin Serves 4
800g aubergine (ideally, the small elongated variety)
Olive oil, for frying
1 medium onion, diced
1 garlic clove, peeled and chopped
500g ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
Salt and black pepper
1 large egg, beaten
150ml double cream or mascarpone
60g parmesan, grated, plus more for topping
A splash of milk (optional)
A small handful of basil leaves
1 Cut the aubergine into 3mm thick slices lengthways. If you wish, salt the slices. Pour oil into a frying pan until it reaches 25mm up the sides, then set over a medium heat. Once hot, fry the slices in batches until golden on both sides, then lift from the pan and blot on plenty of kitchen towel. You may need more oil; don’t let it get too hot.
2 Dispose of the oil and wipe the pan. Return it to the heat and add 3 tbsp of fresh oil. Fry the onion until soft and translucent. Add the garlic, tomatoes and a pinch of salt. Cook until most of the water has evaporated and the tomatoes are thick and saucy – usually about 15 minutes. Taste for sweetness and add a little sugar, if you like
3 Mash the ricotta. Add the egg, cream, a pinch of salt and half the parmesan. Beat into a thick cream – it should pour slowly, so if it is too thick, add a little milk. Taste and add salt, as needed.
4 Set the oven to 200C/400F/gas 6. Line the bottom of a small, deep gratin or baking dish with the aubergine, season with pepper, rip over some tiny pieces of basil, sprinkle with the remaining parmesan, then add half the sauce. Repeat. Finish with a layer of aubergine. Spoon on the cream and dust with parmesan. Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 190C/375F/gas 5 for another 15 minutes, or until the surface is set and golden. Rest for 15 minutes before serving.
Cook’s tip If you have leftover olive oil from frying the slices, it can be filtered and used again