It was a sunny day that started with a little drizzle my last day in Paris.
I was stationed in a little town close to the ville lumieres at arm lengths from Versailles. In the past I have told myself many times to just take the train and visit the old kings but I was never strong enough to disentangle myself from the parisian hug. This time I didn't have any excuse; I set my alarm clock, bought my train ticket and there I was, Versailles.
The little town at 30 minutes trainride from Paris is home to one of the most famous castle and gardens complex in the world.
Since the kingdom of Louis the XIIIth this patch of once pristine French countryside started its transformation into the hub of noblesse and intrigues. Love and hate, sex and money, intrigues and alliances have indelebly shaped the town's energy field.
I wonder how many ghosts still roam its grounds, now shuffling their satin dresses, now branding muskets and pitch-forks. What eerie screams and whispers go unheard in the moist wintery nights of full moon in these streets?
From atop its hill, Versailles castle extends its powerful arms toward the village underneath.
The spaces are huge so much so that you do not really perceive the crowd of tourists and locals that regularly frequent this area either to rejoice at the reflections of the once gilded French nobility or to simply stroll among the greeness of its gardens.
I decided to join the latter crowd and while walking through the castle front courtyard, I was already savouring what lied behind the sunny facade.
A downhill path of ivory gravel extended till the mountains far in the distance, left and right an orderly army of trees and bushes promised a cooling shelter from the early summer sun. You are far from being alone in this little corner of Eden on earth. Interspersed under the canopy are many little bistros and bars were to rest and recharge your energies. An unsuspecting tourist can pop up from around a bush any minute, or is it a statue?
As still representations of the human mind's efforts, white marble statues await you here and there. Highly perched over their pedestals, they look at what once was and what it will be with an immanent expression of surprise, pride or loneliness.
You walk and walk and walk over the steps of kings and queens to find yourself in the same spot where possibly one of them sat crying to the skies his wish to escape from all these, from all that lied uphill.
Gardens are always relaxing places nevertheless and Versailles isn't any different.
Make your way up to the glorious Apollo's fountain and you enter a real bucolic dream of splashing waters, refreshing grass and calming shades.
The Apollo's fountain somehow sign the passage between an orderly world of well ranged bushes and statues to a wilder nature of trees and pathways.
The grand canale invites you to sail along it with one of the many rental boats. Still is quite impossible to avoid thinking at those who chose to do the same in another time to cut themselves a little corner of peace from the frenzy of the "castle life" or simply to savour a forbidden love. Poetry verses still echoes in the "shuffling" of leaves and splashes of water.
Slowly but inevitably we enter the "Domaines de la Reine" (the Queen's Estate) when we perceive in the distance a neoclassic building looking down at us through the leaves and the tree-trunks. It is the Grand Trianon, a little marvel of colorful architecture that Louis XIV built for his mistress, the marquise de Montespan. During the kingdom of Louis XV the king's bothanic garden was constructed in this area too and there it lies still under the watchful eye of the local University.
The more you discover of the Trianon complex the more you can understand why Marie Antoinette chose to live and raise her kids here.
On top of its hill, the Grand Trianon palace has the allure of a noble country villa. Surrounded by greenery, it glances at the bigger castle only in the distance. Its own gardens complex soon leads into quiet pastures where sheeps lazily graze. The Queen's Estate was infact a self-sufficient entity with its live stocks and farm.
Slowly but inevitably though, your random walk brings you back into civilization in such a smooth way that only a gate can really define the transition point.
The town of Versailles itself has a conflicting mood to it. The vestigia of the antique richeness often lie unattended wrinkling in the inclement weather.
Still its beating heart shows up in the sudden explosion of color of some of its facades and the modern villas that grow on top the once uninhabited hills.
The contrasts between the tattered aristocratic beauties of the past and the vibrancy of evergreens is as much part of French urban moods as it is of its cuisine.
The power of many national cuisines has been that of transporting the everyday meals into a dimension of reverence so to be envied by those who weren't so lucky to have such culinary traditions. The classic souffles or quenelles have always amazed and satisfied as now the more humble ratatouille does.
Dishes and preparations of the French tradition have, across the years, been transmutated into symbols of lifestyles, repository of genetic memories.
Preparing a bechamel sauce feels more like following on the steps of old masters than using Worchestershire sauce or marzipan does of older and more obscure traditions. This is the power of imagery and, somebody would say, marketing.
The dish I propose you today is a crossing between traditions, as many of my dishes are: Egg gratin Sicilian style.
To me, egg gratins easily resemble the perfect crossing between the elegance of many French egg-based preparations and homey dishes put together from leftovers but without sacrificing the pleasure of the eating experience.
I actually put together this dish for dinner with my hosts after my visit to Versailles. I served it with some steamed basmati rice and my instant onion-compote (that I will show you how to reproduce during this year Food Bloggers Connect in London UK).
Egg gratin alla Norma
Ingredients (serve 2):
Put the diced eggplant in a colander and sprinkle generously with salt mixing them with your hands. Put the colander over a bowl or a plate and let the eggplant purge for 30 minutes or so.
For the tomato sauce, put the olive oil, with the minced garlic, the red-pepper flakes (if using) and 1/2 tablespoon of water in a cold casserole. Set the casserole over medium fire and let it heat up. When the garlic will start sizzling and you will smell it in the air, pour the chopped tomatoes in the casserole. Add the baking soda and a pinch of salt to the tomatoes and let cook until the oil separates, roughly 30-40 minutes.
Taste the tomato sauce and season with some lemon juice if needed and some salt.
While the sauce is cooking, boil the eggs. Pour in a casserole enough water to cover all the eggs and bring it to a simmer. Using a pin, pierce a hole in the rounded part of each egg shell and gently slide them into the simmring water. Stir the eggs for the first 1-2 minutes to center the egg-yolk in the cooked egg.
Let the eggs cook for 9 minutes.
Pour the hot water out of the casserole and fill it with cold one. Do this a couple of times and let the egg cool in the water till safe to handle.
The eggplant should be ready by now. Put the 1/3 cup vegetable oil in a wide pan and heat it over medium-high fire.
Rinse the eggplant dices thoroughly to eliminate the excess salt and then squeeze some of the water out of them. Using paper towels, pat the eggplant dices dry.
When the oil is hot (try it using a piece of eggplant) transfer the eggplant dices in the pan and switch the fire to high. Let the eggplant pan-fry, stirring them once in a while, until nice and golden brown. Transfer the eggplant dices on a plate covered with paper towel and sprinkle with a little salt.
When the tomato sauce is ready start heating up your oven to 180C/360F.
Choose an oven-proof dish that will host the eggs in either 1 or 2 layers. Peel the eggs and cut them in quarter wedges; lay them in the oven-dish, scatter some eggplant on them and some of the cheese. Spread uniformely the tomato sauce on the eggs and finish with more cheese (skip if doing two layers).
The gratin should end with a generous sprinkle of cheese on top so it will gratine properly.
Slide the gratin dish in the hot oven for 20-25 minutes or until sizzling. At this point, if the cheese on top hasn't caramelized yet, switch the grill on max for a few minutes and keep an eye on your gratin cause it might burn fast.
Serve the gratin while nice and hot and enjoy!