Spain – Andalucia: Villa Tiberio, Eggplant fritters with honey (berrenjenas con miel)
One of the foods on my “culinary must do” list while in Spain was eggplant fritters with honey. It is seemingly an unusual dish, I have never had it before and never really thought of serving a savoury eggplant with honey but it did sound good. I imagined it crispy on the outside, soft inside, a little savoury with a sweet honey drizzle, surely it would be delish. According to Claudia Roden (the Julia Child of Spanish cuisine) it is a specialty of Cordoba in Andalucia but my foodie friends in Spain said it is a specialty also of Malaga and Marbella (on the Mediterranean costa del sol of Andalucia). It makes sense to find this dish in southern Spain. There is a strong Muslim influence on foods here (Moors ruled the area for more than 700 years and left their mark on the cuisine) and the dish sounds like it came form this heritage.
Well, I looked for berrenjenas con miel on every restaurant menu but it was not to be seen. Perhaps not EVERY restaurant but you know, the places we tried. I am sure they serve it somewhere there but we could not find it. Finally, on our last night in Marbella, not having been able to cross this item off my long “list”, we were going to have dinner at Villa Tiberio, a high end restaurant on the Golden Mile between Puerto Bañus and Marbella. Surely one can get anything along this extravagant stretch the rich and famous call home. Determined to have the dish before we left I emailed the restaurant manager in the morning asking if they could prepare the fritters for us that evening. I soon heard back from the manager Jose Jimenez that “Hello señora H, it is a pleasure for us to prepare your choice. Looking forward to seeing you tonight.” Done.
We arrived at the restaurant at 8:00 pm (early for Spanish dinner time) and settled at the table in the spacious and luxurious room. Villa Tiberio is quite a place so if you go, have an open mind. I first heard of it while watching an hour long documentary about Marbella and Puerto Bañus by Piers Morgan. The restaurant evidently is a favourite among European royalty, aristocracy, sport legends (soccer mainly) movie stars and other international celebrities as well as with local ladies who lunch. The entrance foyer is covered wall to wall with photographs of the flamboyant owner Sandro Morelli with the various celebrities and dignitaries that have dined there over the years. Even Prince Rainier of Monaco has been there. Interesting.
The time to go to Villa Tiberio is in the spring and summer when the garden is open and set with linen covered tables and the flowers are in bloom. The garden was closed when we were there, being off season. The restaurant sits on a prime piece of real estate, a stone throw away from the prestigious Marbella Club Hotel, smack in the centre of the golden mile. It looks like an Italian villa or even a palazzo with gardens, sculptures, water fountains, sculpture, potted plants and did I say sculptures? You get the picture. There are sculptures and statues (are these the same except for size?) all over the place, women in various stages of undress carved out of marble and couples doing who knows what carved out of stone on pedestals. It’s over the top but still, fun in an 80’s sort of way, if you were alive in that decade.
Staff at the restaurant were so friendly and accommodating and the food was wonderful. You may question the elaborate decor but they came through with the food. The restaurant manager Jose, who has worked in this establishment since he was 14 years old, is the life of the party. He is chatty and hard working and does his best to make you comfortable and provide you with anything you need. The restaurant was nearly empty when we were there and we had his undivided attention throughout dinner, for better or for worse. The owner Morelli was not there, away on vacation somewhere, but I hear he is at the restaurant greeting guests most days of the year.
They brought the eggplant fritters half way through our dinner. These were thinly sliced eggplant rounds fried in oil until golden and served with honey on the side. The eggplant had a nice texture, not to soft, not to crunchy. The honey must have been from bees feeding on orange blossoms because it had citrus and orange notes. It was a simple dish but quite delicious and although I was not overwhelmed, it’s my kind of food and I liked it a lot. I made a note to make it at home with a crunchy coating of bread crumbs that I thought would enhance the flavour and texture of the dish, authentic or not authentic. Claudia Rodin says that some places serve the eggplant dipped in batter and cooked to a crisp outer layer. I was going to try it both ways and see for myself.
So finally now that we are home and over the shock of having to live a normal life again after three months of a bit of fantasy living, I am back in the kitchen and ready to experiment. I bought the eggplant, smooth and shiny and heavy with moisture (organic, too). I brought orange blossom honey from Spain, so I could reproduce the authentic flavour profile, and I was ready to go. I thought about how to serve it and decided that for me it would be better to serve this as an appetizer, so I decided to make it into eggplant fritters that you can pick with your fingers or a small fork. It’s not the traditional way but I don’t think the Spanish culinary police will be on my doorstep any time soon. Anyway, I would have to buzz them in to get up into my rooftop kitchen here:). Of course I also made it the traditional way, which turned out delish. It’s a keeper.
Eggplants tend to absorb oil like a sponge but there are ways to get around this. Caludia Roden says to soak the sliced eggplant in milk for a couple of hours, then drain and proceed with the recipe. Of course this works as the eggplant soaks up the milk and therefore will not be able to soak up any of the oil. You can do the same with home made French fries. Soak them in water and they will then not soak up the oil (I learned that from Jacques Pepin a hundred years ago). I didn’t want the dairy in the eggplant dish so I sliced the eggplant and placed it between layers of paper towels and refrigerated it overnight. The next day it was nice and dry and ready to be cooked (it exudes moisture once it’s cut). I find that if you do it this way it does not soak up much oil and does not become soggy.
The recipe itself is very easy but you do need to bread the eggplant slices. I do it assembly line style with the bowls containing the flour, eggs and bread crumbs all ready and move the eggplant slices from one plate to the next. I place the coated eggplant slices on a foil lined baking sheet ready to proceed with the recipe. If you don’t have orange blossom honey then use any other honey of pouring consistency.
For the appetizer style I cut each eggplant round into about 4-5 sticks, kind of like French fry cut. I cooked some of the eggplant plain and some of the slices got coated with crumbs first. It was a fun little adventure making something new. It’s definitely something I will keep in my repertoire for us or for company. If you venture to make it let me know what you thought of the dish.
1 large eggplant
1 cup flour
2 cups bread crumbs
1 cup olive oil
Good quality liquid honey, orange blossom honey of you have it.
Slice the eggplant into round about 1/2 ” thick.
Place rounds on paper towels in 2-3 layers, separating the layers with paper towels.
Refrigerate until the next day.
When you are ready to proceeds remove the eggplant from the refrigerator. If you plan to make the eggplant fritters in “sticks” then cut each round into 4-5 sticks.
Using three plates, place flour, eggs and bread crumb each onto a separate plate. Whisk the eggs with a fork to combine the yolks with the whites.
Working with a few pieces at a time drop some of the eggplants into the flour to coat on all sides.
Then drop the flour coated eggplant into the egg and using 2 forks flip them over a few times to coat them with the egg on all sides.
Transfer the egg coated eggplant into the bread crumb dish and turn until coated with bread crumbs.
Transfer the coated slices to a foil lined baking sheet keeping them in one layer.
Repeat with remaining eggplant pieces.
Heat up the oil in a skillet.
When hot, drop s few eggplant pieces at a time onto the hot oil until nicely golden on the bottom.
Flip over once and cook the other side.
Transfer to a paper lined tray and continue with the rest until done
Serve warm with the honey on the side.