Eggplants, or melanzane, were grown in abundance on our farm. Each winter, my parents received mail orders for hundreds of pounds of these beauties from Italian families throughout British Columbia and Alberta. As the melanzane were harvested, they were packed in used cardboard boxes, in which Calona Wines had received their glass wine jugs. Each morning, the packed boxes were brought to the train station for delivery to families, who would preserve the eggplants for their winter use. There, they would be fried, roasted or salted and pickled.
Melananze are warm weather lovers, and prefer rich, but well drained soil. They are subject to wilt and other moisture loving diseases, so do best when one can avoid watering their leaves.
In locations, including Burma, India, Northern Thailand, and Southern China, melanzane plants are native species that have been cooked and consumed for centuries. The wild melanzane plants were domesticated and cultivated, beginning in ancient times. A 300 BC Sanskrit document made note of the plant and discussed the fruit in positive terms. In China, evidence of melanzane cultivation was found in documents from the Western Jin Dynasty, written as early as the 3rd century. The eggplant reached Southern Italy by the 9th century. Arabs brought the fruits along with them as they expanded their territory into the region.
Melanzane was consumed by fearless foodies in the Calabrian and Sicilian regions of Italy, although some people were initially wary of the funny egg-shaped produce. In ancient Roman gardens, white-colored melanzane species may have been cultivated as purely ornamental plants.
The name melanzane is derived from the name mala insana , meaning mad apple. This Renaissance-era term for the plant, sprung from the belief that the fruit made people angry and full of melancholy.
The melanzane plant has many names: aubergine (from the French), brinjal (South African and South Asian), guinea squash (South American) and melongene, the word used in the Caribbean.
In early cultures, eggplant was considered a medicinal ingredient as well as a food source. All parts of the plants, including the roots, were used to treat ailments. Some illnesses thought to be treated with melanzane include: asthma, dental issues, diabetes and intestinal upset.
Other ancient medical practitioners believed the eggplant caused more problems than it cured. Everything from pimples to epilepsy was blamed on the melanzane.
It was once thought that salting and soaking removed risks from the plant. Many traditional Italian chefs continue to salt and soak eggplant before cooking, but the steps are not necessary to enjoy the healthy fruit.
The earliest detailed reference “Eggplant Parmesan” occurred in an 18th century cookbook. The dish was made with butter, cream sauce, cinnamon, and other spices and then covered with Parmesan cheese. The dish included tomatoes, after their arrival in the New World, around the same time period.
“A short history of Melanzane, or eggplant” from Picano’s Italian Grille (Michigan) July 25, 2018
14 Gorgeous Eggplant Varieties from Four Root Farm (Connecticut)
Nuts, of all sorts, have been part of all our family gatherings. Christmas, Easter, or special event dinners at my Nonno and Nonna’s table brings up memories of talking, playing cards, and cracking nuts. Filbert nuts and walnuts are easily grown in our climate so they formed the bulk of the nuts we shared. For special dinners, a few Brazil nuts and almonds were usually thrown into the mix. Nut crackers and picks were essential tools in most Italian homes that made the job of cracking these nuts easier.
In many parts of the world, filberts are known as hazelnuts. That's because the feast day, or celebration, for France's St. Philbert is held on August 20. This happens to be the same time that hazelnuts are ready to be harvested. Because of that coincidence, in Europe, where hazelnuts are widely eaten, the nuts are known as filberts. Although the terms filbert and hazelnut are used interchangeably, filbert typically refers to commercially cultivated crops of hazelnuts.
In the Piemonte region of Italy, the filbert is held in reverence. In her March 13, 2015 article, “Italian Hazelnuts: The great history of a small nut”, Emilia Crippa describes the “round noble from Piedmont” in elegant terms. These special filberts are gown in protected geographical regions that provide a guarantee of excellence in a globalized world, which often rewards large-scale businesses over tradition and specialization.
The Tonda Gentile Trilobata hazelnut is considered by connoisseurs to be one of the very best. It's widely used in the area to produce a traditional cake called Torta di Nocciola, a famous chocolate confection of Turin known as Gianduja, and a grape preserve called cugnà to accompany bollito misto (a northern Italian stew) or cheese.
Filberts can be used in many different ways, such as the base of alcoholic liqueurs, in cakes, cookies, and chocolate production, and in soups, salads, and other savory dishes. Filberts can also be used to make a high-quality finishing oil, or as a flavoring for coffee and other beverages. They make superb gelato too. They are also excellent simply toasted and served before a meal with hors d'oeuvres or after with cheese.
In 2019, the world production of hazelnuts (in shells) was 1.1 million tonnes. The hazelnut production in Turkey accounts for 69% of the world total, followed by Italy, Azerbaijan, the United States, Chile, and China. Ferrero SpA, the maker of Nutella and Ferrero Rocher, uses 25% of the global supply of hazelnuts.
Growing filberts in many parts of Italy has become a fine art. In the area in Piedmont between Asti, Cuneo and Alessandria, know-how and beauty make up for quantity: trees are grown with elegant regularity, and feature a lithe trunk – especially in the bushy variant – that even newcomers cannot help but notice. Farming and picking techniques have been combined and fine-tuned in order to allow for higher yield while respecting the identity and tradition of the local territory: trees are planted exactly 5 meters apart in hazelnut orchards, leaving just enough room for a self-propelled picking machine.
In many towns annual filbert festivals are held. If you want to enter the universe dedicated to Nocciola Piemonte, visit Cortemilia, in the Langhe region, in August. The Sagra della nocciola, nearing 70 years of celebrations, turns the small town in the province of Cuneo into the capital of this delicious gift of nature.
1. “Italian Hazelnuts: The great history of a small nut”, by Emilia Crippa, March 13, 2015 https://www.italianways.com/italian-hazelnuts-the-great-history-of-a-small-nut/
Life-long Gardener Don Rampone shares his tips and advice for gardening