Today I’m recounting an amazing Italian dish called ‘melanzane in saor’, or aubergine ‘in Saor’. It’s a very simple yet beautifully balanced Italian dish that has sweet and sour flavours that work just beautifully together. The age is the important thing, you need to make this dish well in advance to let the flavours develop, it’s perfect to make a day ahead for a buffet spread or to take along to a picnic, but don’t hurry it. If there’s one thing that Italian cooking has ever taught me, it’s that love and respect are the ingredients that make food beauteous.
Just over a year ago I visited Venice, one of the most confoundingly beautiful places I’ve ever been to. I expected hustle, bustle, noise and expensive food, which was entirely correct, however I hadn’t prepared myself for the heart and soul of Venice, which is the important part. On the way there I read Venice is a Fish by Tiziano Scarpa which gave me a better understanding of the extraordinary nature of the city, it’s history, quaint features and idiosyncrasies unlike any guide book ever could.
Experiencing the food of Venice is not as easy, there are plenty of restaurants which demand you to order in English before serving up distinctly average Italian food at distinctly un-average prices. However, there also was some lovely food nestled in amongst the tourist traps, my favourite being ‘melanzane in saor’, which is a very simple preparation of aubergines and onions. Venetians have a very strong sense of identity and as with many places in Italy, that includes a pride in their food.
This is where Italy gets it so right. They take something incredibly simple like aubergines with fried onions and manage to somehow develop it into a dish which becomes the highlight of my holiday. If you tasked me with creating a beautiful dish surrounding aubergine and fried onions I’d probably stare at the page for a while and then demand piles of spices, herbs or mint yoghurt.
Not the Ventians, oh no. They’ve taken those simple ingredients and with just a few condiments make a stunningly beautiful dish. The devil, as ever, is hiding in the details. This is a recipe which ages beautifully so it shouldn’t be eaten straight away, it should be left to mature for at least a day before consumption, preferably two days. The flavours integrate and work together all the more beautifully with time.
Kept in Translation.
There is very little about this dish in English on the internet, I’ve trawled the web using Google Translate and received help from Pina at One Two Culinary Stew who adeptly translated how good this recipe is from the native Italian, which said “it’s beyond good” in case you’re wondering. There’s a sister recipe called ‘sarde in saor’, which is sardines in the same sauce and I believe both ‘sarde’ and ‘melanzane in soar’ are both distinctly Venetian dishes. I tried the sardine version whilst in Venice and can report that it’s similarly lovely, but the aubergines simply work their magic slightly better in this dish.
Using fantastic ingredients is a large part of what makes Italian food good, so if you can find some great quality aubergines then you will end up with a better dish than if you use the cheapest you can find. Good oil and vinegar will also help create a more rounded, rich flavour, so push the boat out. However, the most important thing is the time, this isn’t a dish for a quick lunch, it’s a dish to be planned and made for tomorrow’s lunch. With a bit of love, respect and time you also feel like you are wandering down a calli to order a beautifully prepared bowl of melanzane in soar at your local trattoria.
Melanzane in Saor
By Gavin Wren
Serves 4 as a side
+ 2 days
Uses a lidded frying pan, griddle and saucepan
50g sultanas or raisins
30g of pine nuts
4 white onions, halved and thinly sliced
2 aubergines, sliced lengthways 5mm thick
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
0.5 teaspoon of salt
A pinch of pepper
1 teaspoon of sugar
3 tablespoons of white wine vinegar
1 bay leaf, finely chopped
Heat a frying pan with a lid over a medium-low heat and add 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Place the onions in the pan, cover with a lid and cook, stirring occasionally for about 5-10 minutes until they have softened. You don’t want them to brown, if they do, turn the heat down.
Meanwhile, heat a separate pan or griddle over a medium heat, brush the aubergine slices with a little oil and cook for a few minutes each side until softened and browned. You will need to do this in batches. Place the slices in a covered bowl once cooked.
When the onions are softened, add the salt, pepper, sugar and vinegar then cook with the lid off until all of the liquid has evaporated.
Remove the sultanas from the water and add to the onions along with the pine nuts, mix them in and remove from the heat.
Take your serving dish and layer slices of aubergine with layers of onion mix, finishing with onions on top.
Sprinkle the bay leaf over the top, then cover and refrigerate for two days before serving.