With its rounded shape and deep red colour, the Red Eggplant of Rotonda (Melanzana Rossa di Rotonda DOP) looks somewhat similar to a tomato. The consistency of its flesh is like that of any other eggplant but its flavour is slightly piquant and bitter. Its appearance and colour have earned it a reputation for being a devilish fruit, and in fact its Italian name of "melanzana" derives from "mela insana" meaning unhealthy apple.
There are four main varieties of eggplant: the long purplish variety of Palermo, the more common round type from Florence, that of Murcia which is round with a shaded violet colour. The only one, however, boasting the Italian DOC appellation (Denominazione di Origine Controllata: protected geographical designations of origin) which was obtained in 2010, is the Red Eggplant of Rotonda, a small village in Basilicata, a region in Italy's deep south. They are grown throughout the province of Potenza, in Basilicata. The plant thrives at about 600 metres a.s.l. on what used to be a lake in the National Reserve of Pollino in the ancient valley of the Mercure, characterized by pure water springs and sandy soil. This variety differs from other species because it looks more like a large tomato or a persimmon than an eggplant. Indeed, in its production area, it is referred to as the "tomato eggplant".
According to historians, eggplants were brought to the Mediterranean area in the XV century by the Arab populations who, in their turn, had discovered them in India and China. In the specific case of the Red Eggplant of Rotonda, it landed in Italy in the thirties carried in the suitcases of some colonials who had returned from Ethiopia, a country conquered by Italy during the Fascist period. This tomato look-alike found its perfect habitat in Basilicata. Thanks to the versatility of this vegetable in cooking, but also because of widespread famine and poverty, the Red Eggplant became a popular food among the peasants of the Mercure Valley.
The eggplant is a typical summer vegetable which thrives in the sun. It prospers well in mild climates and when the temperature falls below 12 degrees, its growth is interrupted. Sowing takes place in spring and harvesting continues until mid-September. One of the characteristics of the Red Eggplant of Rotonda is that it does not turn brown when coming into contact with the air, unlike other varieties. The fruits are picked by hand by cutting off a small part of the cap. It may surprise you to learn that the leaves of this eggplant variety are edible too.
How to enjoy Red Eggplant of Rotonda at its best
When perfectly ripened, the eggplant has a meaty flesh and a slightly bitter aftertaste. The Red Eggplant of Rotonda is more piquant than other varieties, while its fruity notes recall those of the prickly pear. In its production area, it is generally preserved in oil or in scapece, that is to say, fried and marinated in oil and vinegar with oregano and mint. The elderly women of this part of Italy continue to preserve the fruits in bunches, hung up to dry.
Traditional recipes of Basilicata involve frying the eggplant and seasoning it with garlic and mint or using it in combination with caciocavallo podolico cheese for serving on fusilli pasta or together with sausage in meatball form. As in the case of other varieties, the Red Eggplant of Rotonda can be cooked using any of the traditional methods; stuffed, pan tossed with oil, garlic and parsley in sauces, oven-baked or grilled; not to mention pasta alla Norma or caponata in which eggplants are the star ingredient. Even creative cuisine has discovered its versatility, for instance in the delicious version stuffed with quinoa.
A suitable pairing for eggplant Parmigiana? Nero D'Avola, Primitivo, Chianti Classico and Frappato for the pleasingly structured tannins which counter-balance the sumptuous richness of this dish. Since the vegetables are fried before being oven-baked, white wines with sufficient acidity, such as Greco di Tufo, Sylvaner and Riesling are also recommended.