Years ago, I did a workshop in a church hall that smelled of milky tea and damp carpet. One of the various exercises was to write a short story, a page long, about something dramatic that had happened to us or someone we knew. Having written our page, we were told to read the story back, then cross it out with a single line. The next stage was to write the same story, only this time to take up half a page. Again, we were told to read it, then strike a line through it. The last part was to write the same story in a single sentence, read it twice, then underline two words.
Almost without exception, and regardless of where the story had started and how dramatic or bad it was, the sentences were tender and funny. The two words (“busy orange” are the ones I remember best) were all moving and hilarious, which was no doubt also due to the fact that we had been incubating in a strip-lit room that smelled of milky tea and damp carpet. After a break to drink the tea we had been smelling all morning and to eat chocolate bourbons and ginger nuts, we came back to discuss the exercise. It was all about the stories we are tied to, and how we tell them and can change them; at the time, it felt as if we were hitting on the meaning of life. Some things have stayed with me, and nothing more so than the smell and taste of milky tea and a busy orange.
I think about that busy orange – the sentence, and the page and the half-page – a lot when I write about food, when less is more and when more is necessary (or when I think it is necessary, but actually just gets in the way). Sometimes, “busy orange” is enough, while ‘“velvet-topped” is probably a bit abstract. How about this sentence? Thick, striped rounds of aubergine baked with loads of olive oil and salt until tender and velvety, then topped with finely diced tomato macerated with other things for maximum tastiness. Is that enough instruction for you to make roasted aubergine with tomato and basil? Or would a half-page be better?
I could write another 500 words about my seasoned (ie filthy) baking tray and how I pour a puddle of oil into it, heat it, and lay in the thick, stripy aubergine slices so they sizzle, then stand like a guard by the oven with a fish slice and turn them like an overprotective mum, and add more oil until they are just the right shade of gold. I could write a short story about propping open the door with a broken wooden spoon, so they continue slumping in the cooling oven to the right point of velvet while I have a cup of tea. Slumping tea for a slumping summer afternoon, which would be exactly the right temperature for these to rest at before you eat them with bread and mozzarella.
4 medium aubergines
200g ripe, good tasting tomatoes (ie, a couple of tasty ones), or 8 cherry tomatoes
Trim the cap and curved end from each aubergine, then use a peeler to take vertical strips from the aubergines so they are stripy. Cut the aubergines into 3cm-thick rings and rub all over with salt and olive oil (in a bowl if that’s easier).
Lay the rings on a well-oiled baking tray and zigzag with more oil. Bake for 30 minutes at 180C (160C fan)/350F/gas 4, carefully turning them a few times, until they are very tender and golden on both sides. Leave the rings in the cooling oven with the door ajar, so they gently bake and soften further.
Meanwhile, very finely dice the tomatoes and put them in a bowl with a good pinch of salt, four tablespoons of olive oil, a pinch of oregano and a dash of red-wine vinegar, and leave to sit for a while.
Once the aubergines have cooled a little, lift them on to a serving plate and top each slice with a teaspoon of diced tomatoes and their juices, and a leaf of basil. Zigzag the whole plate with more oil and leave to sit for at least 30 minutes, or longer, so the flavours have time to settle.