Along the Road to Gundagai, Anglo-Saxon, Aran Valley, aubergine, aubergines, capsicum, Catalan, ciambotta, cookbook, Coriander, coriander seeds, couscous, Creative Cooking with Spices, eggplant, eggplants, Elioth Gruner, Farm, garlic, Green Renters, Guardia Piemontese, Gundagai, history of ratatouille, Italian, Italy, Jane Eyre, Jane Walker, Madame Bovary, Majorca, Mediterranean, Mediterranean cuisine, Monaco, Murrumbidgee, New South Wales, Nice, NSW, Occitan cuisine, Occitan Valleys, Occitania, Olive oil, onions, pepper, Piccadilly Valley, property, Provencal, provence, ratatouille, ratatouille nicoise, ratatouille recipe, samfaina, seasonal eating, seasonal produce, southern France, Spain, spices, Tabasco, Tabasco sauce, tomatoes, tombet, vegetables, zucchini
Once upon a time, long ago, I began a story about coffee with the sentence, ‘This is a short story, so I’ll tell it so’. And I did. Recently, when I dragged my old favourite ratatouille recipe off the shelf, I remarked on two things. Firstly, it is so evidently a seasonal dish, as I had everything but the onions and garlic going gangbusters in the garden. Secondly, I thought that it had to be inspired by a more broadly Mediterranean cuisine, as it seems so un-French in many ways (a stew? Mon Dieu!). Turns out my suspicions were correct, and the dish originates from Occitania. So now I know something I didn’t know before that explains a lot of things, particularly foodie things, such as the strong resemblance between so many Mediterranean dishes. That old adage – that you learn something new every day – is fairly accurate.
Ratatouille, then, springs from the Provençal region of southern France around 1875. As the town of Nice is home to the dish, its full name is ratatouille niçoise. And Nice is part of Occitania, along with Monaco, the Occitan Valleys and Guardia Piemontese in Italy, and the Aran Valley in Spain. Not surprisingly, ratatouille has variations right throughout the Occitan region, such as the Catalan samfaina, the Majorcan tombet, and the southern Italian ciambotta. As with most traditional dishes, there’s lots of debate as to the proper way to make ratatouille; a debate that I am not going to weigh in on here.
When I was a teenager, I would head off to stay on my godmother’s farm (technically, it was her husband’s family’s farm), on the hills above the Murrumbidgee. We shared a passion for gardening and growing food, and she certainly inspired in me a keen interest in cooking. Each day of my visit we would plan and later cook a sumptuous three-course dinner, based on what was in the garden, the freezer, or in the pantry. During the day I entertained myself with riding the old horse bareback along dirt roads through the bush, singing ‘Along the Road to Gundagai’ to the birds and the gums.
Over the next few years my godmother sent me a cookbook for my birthday, and these books remain the fundamental backbone of my recipe collection. Other cookbooks have come and gone but these, now stained and wrinkled, with pages turned down or marked with post-it notes, are ‘classics’, much like a Madame Bovary or Jane Eyre of the cookery world. Of course, back in the 1980s, food in Australia was still poised on the cusp between fully taking on the influences of its migrant populations and its geographic place in the world.
These cookbooks opened up an exotic world to me – apart from the Presbyterian Ladies Cookbook, which provides all the basics of Anglo-Saxon cooking you could possibly ever need, down to boiling an egg – as they did to their audience in the UK as well. My ratatouille recipe, then, comes from Creative Cooking with Spices, by Jane Walker, published in 1988. The inside cover reads ‘ … Did you know that fenugreek has been used to prevent baldness, that mace and nutmeg are different parts of the same plant and that ‘curry’ is derived from the Tamil ‘kerri’ meaning marketplace or bazaar? Creative Cooking with Spices reveals all this and more, but is, above all, an exhortation to spice it up. You will wonder how you ever managed before without spices.’ This seems unbelievably quaint now, almost 26 years down the track, but at the time led me to hunt down every spice mentioned in the book and fill my kitchen shelves with exotica.
The book proceeds alphabetically through the spices, so it wasn’t long before I got to ‘coriander’ and, hence, Walker’s version of ratatouille. It’s a great version and I’ve never bothered trying any others, as this one is so tasty and easy, why would I? This summer, as the garden has produced an enormous amount of tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini and capsicum (which is not surprising, given the temperate nature of the weather of late), I’ve made ratatouille on a number of occasions, particularly as it’s one of those meals the whole family likes. And thus I come to the end of this brief personal and cultural history of ratatouille. Below is Jane Walker’s recipe, with a few of my own alterations made over time.
- 5 large tomatoes (I used 30 or so small ones, as that’s what I’ve got in the garden.)
- 2 eggplant (aubergines) (Again, I used four of the white eggplant pictured above, but two of the large, purple Bonita would be equivalent.)
- 5 zucchini (Or 1/3 of a zucchini the size of the one above.)
- 1 large green capsicum (I used two, perhaps three.)
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 2 onions, chopped
- 2 – 3 cloves garlic, crushed
- A drop of Tabasco sauce
- 20 or so coriander seeds
- Ground black pepper
- Slice the tomatoes, zucchini and eggplant into fairly good-sized pieces. (Jane Walker says to peel the tomatoes and salt and drain the eggplant, but neither of these steps are at all necessary.)
- Remove the pith and seeds from the capsicum and chop.
- Heat the oil in a large saucepan with a lid and cook the onions and garlic until translucent.
- Add all the vegetables, the coriander seeds, black pepper and the Tabasco (adding more than one drop is obviously fine, to taste).
- Cover and simmer for 40 minutes, checking and stirring occasionally.
As a great vegetarian meal, I serve ratatouille on couscous with a dob of sour cream and perhaps a garnish of fresh coriander. It can also be served as a side dish to anything – fish, meat or even pasta. The coriander seeds (numbering a mere 10 in the original recipe) add a distinct flavour to this version of ratatouille, and its simplicity and seasonality is one of the reasons I like it so much. Below is a picture of my ratatouille before it was cooked. I thought it looked so beautiful, I forgot to take a picture of it served up on the plate, and then we ate it, fast. Next time I make it, I’ll take a photo of the final product, but this will have to do for now.
The feature image is a painting of the ‘Piccadilly Valley’ in NSW by Elioth Gruner. My godmother’s husband’s family’s property is called ‘Piccadilly’.