When I was young we used to spend summers in Calabria, Southern Italy, where my father is from. He was the youngest of 9 children, 6 of whom were girls. His older sisters all used to fight over who we would stay with during our holiday, as most of them had had a hand in bringing him up and treated him almost as a son. We used to try and divide our time up with the various families, but my happiest memories were of staying with my Zia Santa.
When I mentioned this once to someone in the UK they asked me if it was strange having an aunt named after Santa Claus. How bizarre, I thought, it had never once crossed my mind that her name might sound unusual to anyone else. In Italian Santa is a female saint, or a “blessed one”. My Zia Santa was indeed a saint, she had a hard life and lived in very basic simplicity for the whole of her married and then widowed life. But we loved being with her. She had one bedroom where my parents slept in her huge dark wood framed bed with my younger brother on a fold out bed. Her bathroom only had a toilet and a sink where she also washed all her clothes. The only other room was a large living, dining, kitchen area which looked onto the main street of the little village, called Longobardi. I slept here with my aunt, her on a bed and me on a mattress – and every night we would giggle together like two little schoolgirls rather than an aunt and niece who were separated in age by over 40 years.
There was a small balcony which served as the telephone. If people wanted to give you a message they stood in the street and whoever was nearest the window stood there and took the message. Likewise, if you wanted to let a neighbour know some news, all you had to do was stand on the balcony and tell a passer-by. You were in no doubt that the message would reach its recipient almost as instantly as an e-mail or text nowadays.
Zia Santa was an incredible cook. August was always taken up with drying tomatoes on her flat roof, or bottling tomatoes to go into the huge storage area on the ground floor. It never struck me as odd that there was this enormous space downstairs that could have been converted into a bathroom, bedroom, laundry room…whatever. It was more important back then to have a good space to store the cheese, salami, prosciutto, olive oil and tomatoes for winter.
I´m trying to write down all the recipes that Zia Santa taught me, my mother and, some years, my English grandmother to cook. Today it´s Caponata. I had to call my mum to ask her what the special ingredient was. Our family caponata was never the same as any other I´ve tasted. I´m sure there are thousands of family recipes, each one different from the other. This is ours.
- About 1kg of aubergines (eggplant, melanzane) finely chopped and salted, then left to drain for about 30 minutes then rinsed and patted dry
- Olive oil – plenty for frying
- 1 onion finely chopped
- 3 sticks of celery finely chopped
- 4 tablespoons of red wine vinegar (although I used white as that´s what we have here and it was delicious)
- About 500g of ripe tomatoes peeled and finely chopped
- Up to 2 tablespoons of sugar
- About a quarter of a cup each of chopped capers and chopped stoned olives (black or green)
- The grated zest of half an orange – the secret ingredient!
Fry the aubergine chunks (which in all other recipes I´ve seen is left much chunkier). Zia Santa used to deep fry, I shallow fry. The choice is yours. Set them aside when they are browned and soft.
Now add the onion and celery to the pan with more oil if necessary and fry with the lid on until soft and translucent. Turn up the heat and add the vinegar and allow it to reduce almost completely. Turn the heat back down and add the tomatoes, seasoning and about half the sugar and simmer for about 15 minutes or so or until the celery is tender but still retains a little crunch. Stir in the aubergines, olives, capers and orange zest and taste. It should be “agrodolce” sweet and sour – add the rest of the sugar if necessary and allow it to dissolve.
This dish is best served the next day and will sit quite happily in your fridge for several days. We used to eat it at room temperature as part of the antipasto but it´s also good as a side dish.
And don´t forget, do shout out of the window to let me know if you enjoyed it!