France is not the only country with a ratatouille

JP McMahon: The sometimes disappointing aubergine has come a long way

I have a difficult relationship with aubergines, their bitterness often disappoints me. I remember watching Gordon Ramsay chopping, salting, and rinsing aubergines to make a French dish with lamb. Though I wonder now, what is France’s relationship with the aubergine? Of course, it’s in a ratatouille, but other than that? Is it a colonial thing? Or did it just grow well in Provence?

The aubergine is a member of the nightshade family (as are tomatoes and potatoes) and originally comes from Asia. Though they’re grown all around the world now, nearly 90 per cent of the world’s aubergines hail from China and India. The aubergine made its way from Asia into Iran (cooked and blended with whey) and from the Middle East (baba ghanoush) into Turkey (stuffed with minced meat). From Turkey, the aubergine spread to Greece (moussaka), Italy (parmigiana di melanzane), Spain (deep fried and served with honey) and finally on to France where it takes its place in ratatouille.

Ratatouille seems to have originated in 1877 (as a meaty stew) and only appears in print in 1930s in the form that we now know it. However, France is not the only country with a ratatouille, that is, a stew of aubergines, peppers, and courgettes. There are several Spanish versions of the dish from escalivada (Catalonia) to pisto (La Mancha), samfaina (Valencia), and tombet (Majorca). Moreover, there are versions of ratatouilles from Italy and all the way back to Turkey and Iran.

Confit byaldi is the most famous variation of the dish because it’s the one that appears in Disney’s film, Ratatouille. Though this version was invented by French chef Michel Guérard, the one in the film was designed by US chef Thomas Keller. Keller’s version involves slicing all the vegetables (courgette, tomatoes, aubergines) thinly on a mandolin and baking them, covered, on a bed of pepper sauce in the oven on a low heat for about two hours. Whatever version you make, ratatouille always tastes better the following day.