Mellowed with age

Once upon a time, aubergines were bitter. This is no longer true

Aubergines are the ideal vegetable - fruit, if you wish to be pedantic - for early autumn. They remind you of the summer, while offering a creamy texture that brings comfort as the sunlight mellows and the nights draw in. A pile of plump aubergines, glowing purple where the light catches them, is an irresistible sight.

An aubergine I cooked in France last month was a sumptuous reminder that so many of its counterparts on sale in Britain are meagre in flavour. Perhaps greenhouses are to blame. My outdoor-grown, French aubergine was rich and meaty. Eating it was like regaining taste following a cold - the gustatory equivalent of hearing clearly after one's ears have been syringed.

My French aubergine required no special advance treatment - no sprinkling with salt, or soaking in salted water - to attain its melting consistency. So why do so many cookery writers insist that pre-salting is essential? It is a question that continues to trouble me, even though three years ago I wrote a book that referred in its title to the unnecessary nature of the operation.

The latest reference I have come across is in Indian Takeaway by Hardeep Singh Kohli, who describes an unusual twist on the technique: if I understand him correctly, you lop off the stem end of the aubergine, pile salt on to the exposed surface, and press the stem back on. The transformation in flavour that this procedure triggers, after just ten minutes or so, is "unbelievable", he says. Yet it certainly is hard to believe that it could affect the flavour of flesh, say, ten centimetres away from the salt.

More usually, you slice the aubergine, sprinkle salt over the slices, and place them in a colander; or you soak the slices in salted water. Once upon a time, aubergines were bitter, and maybe some still are: since writing my book, I have met people from the Middle East who have assured me that their aubergines still need sweating. But modern strains are not bitter. Even if they were, that would not be tempered by salting, which only disguises the taste.

The second reason why you might pre-salt an aubergine is to get rid of some of its liquid, to concentrate its flavour and to prevent its absorbing a huge quantity of oil. But cooking dries it out anyway; and an aubergine will absorb as much oil as you give it. The only time when I have wished that I had pre-salted my aubergines was this weekend, when I baked and then stuffed them. Their flesh was a little watery.

Preparing my French aubergine, I simply cut it into discs, brushed the discs with olive oil, seasoned them, and baked them for 20 minutes. Then I piled them into a dish with tomato sauce and with a topping of thick bechamel, which I had enriched with a beaten egg. I baked this gratin for a further 20 minutes, until the sauce was puffy and browned. We ate it warm.

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Iran