Use red eggplants from Italy to make a gourmet spread

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The gardens connect us to our past. In the house of my ancestors in Potenza, Italy, there is a town called Rotonda which annually celebrates the marriage, not of two lovers, but of two trees. It is called Sagra dell’Abete / Fir Festival. A beech and a fir tree are cut from the nearby woods and taken by oxen to the main square of Rotonda, where they are hoisted on top of each other, creating a single trunk, which is then cut with an ax.

In addition to the trees to marry, Rotonda has a unique vegetable garden in Europe: the Red Eggplant of Rotonda, Melanzana Rossa di Rotonda.

This bright cherry red eggplant has a taste that is a blend of all the favorite Italian vegetables, a blend of eggplant, peppers and tomatoes.

In the Italian province of Potenza, it is traditionally made into a gourmet caponata, a delicious spread served on crisp Italian bread. It is also used to make pickled eggplants. Traditional Potenza recipes include frying eggplants in olive oil with garlic and mint. It is also delicious made into meatballs in combination with sausages. Rotonda’s red eggplant can also be used to make traditional eggplants with parmesan or brushed with olive oil and grilled over charcoals.

The fruit is a round, bright orange-red color, and it was imported from Ethiopia to Rotonda, Italy, just before WWII. Unlike many other eggplants, it does not turn black when cut, making it attractive raw slices. Because of its red color, it is sometimes called the devilish fruit. Indeed, the Italian name for eggplant, “melanzana”, comes from the expression “mela insana”, which means crazy or unhealthy apple.

The seeds are available from Baker Creek Seeds (www.rareseeds.com) and other specialist sellers.

Start the Melanzana Rossa di Rotonda (Solanum melongena) seeds indoors under bright lights 8 to 12 weeks before your last frost date. You can also sow these eggplants directly in the garden once all risk of frost has passed and the soil has warmed up. Plant the seeds 1/4 inch deep, about 2 feet apart in rows 3 feet apart. Choose a location in the garden that receives a lot of direct sunlight.

Eggplant grows best in rich, well-drained soil, so you may want to improve your soil by digging up several inches of manure or aged compost. Keep the soil moist but not soggy. Feed the plants regularly with a slow-release organic fertilizer. Once your plants reach 6 inches in height, apply a layer of organic mulch, such as chopped leaves or straw.

Since Melanzana Rossa di Rotonda can have a pungent taste with a slightly bitter aftertaste, it is often picked slightly unripe, while still orange with green streaks.

You can save your own seeds for the next year. Allow the eggplants you want to keep the seeds to become slightly overripe, showing signs of browning. Remove the seeds and wash them under cold running water to remove any pulp. Spread the seeds out on a cardboard plate in the sun for quick drying

It is important to completely dry the eggplant seeds on the same day, otherwise they could start to sprout overnight.

So this year plant the colorful eggplant Melanzana Rossa di Rotonda and taste the most delicious caponata on crisp Italian bread. It is a feast worthy of a wedding, even a marriage of two trees.

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