IberiaNature A guide to the natural history of Spain
By Nick Lloyd - Home - Contact

Courgettes, Gourds & Aubergines / Carabasó ,Carabàs  & Alberginia / Calabacín, Calabaza & Berenjena by Francis Barrett

I have never been a great fan of either courgettes or aubergines before I came to this country, but they are both very popular here, and often turn up together or separately in omelettes or in other quite surprising contexts, such as fried in batter and served with chicken, fish or meat. They feature in many emblematic dishes from every country around the Mediterranean .

Although they are clearly unrelated biologically, courgettes and aubergines are often associated. Many English speakers link them because of the different names used by Americans, who call courgettes by their Italian cognate, zuchinni, and say "eggplant" instead of aubergine. These terms are also used in Australia , where Americanisms are rare. There is apparently some evidence to suggest that they were the Standard English names for these exotic items in Britain and Ireland , too, until the late 19th century craze for naming foodstuffs in French became fashionable.

Pumpkins and courgettes in Zamora

Cooked as a vegetable, classic organically grown courgettes have a light, sweet and slightly nutty flavour, and a texture that almost melts in the mouth. With their high water content (more than 95 percent), they easily turn to mush if overcooked. This mush can, however, be turned into a tasty soup. Courgettes are a good source of Vitamins A and C and Potassium, offer valuable antioxidants, and are very low in calories.

Nowadays courgettes are available all year round, but they are basically warm-season fruit, and summer is the peak production period. Although usually more or less cylindrical, curved or bulbous courgettes are not unknown. The skin can be soft, velvet, shiny or glossy, often with speckles, and colours range from black through various shades of grey and green to yellow and even white. There are hundreds of varieties and hybrids, with wonderful names such as Elite, Embassy, Ambassador, Aristocrat, Senator, Spineless Beauty, Black Jack, Onyx, Raven, Kussa, Gold Rush, and Eldorado. They are harvested and consumed at an immature stage for the best flavour and texture. If left on the vine or bush longer, the Cucurbita pepo, to give courgettes their scientific name, becomes bloated, enormous (up to 40cm in length) and misshapen, the seeds larger, tougher, and sometimes inedible, and the flavour less sweet. A specialty market exists for "baby" courgettes harvested at a very young sta
 ge and sold with the flowers attached.

Courgettes belong to the Cucarbita family, native to the Americas . The colonists of New England adopted the name squash, a word derived from several Native American words for the vegetable which meant "something eaten raw". George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were squash enthusiasts who even enjoyed growing them. There are many varieties of both winter squash and summer squash, the best-known being Butternut Squash and Patty Pan Squash. Cocozelle is a short striped courgette-like variety of squash developed in Italy , and. a similar but thicker type of squash called vegetable marrow is cultivated to giant proportions by competitive gardeners in Britain and Ireland . In Spain , squashes are mainly grown for their membrane, which is sweetened and used as a pastry filling called cabello de angel [angel hair].

Archaeologists have traced the origins of courgettes to Mexico , where they are thought to have been developed from the giant pumpkin (Cucurbita maxima) sometime between 7,000 to 5,500 BCE, and were an integral part of the ancient diet of maize, beans and squashes. That pre-Columbian food trio is still the mainstay of Mexican cuisine and is known today as the "three sisters".

The first conquistadores brought pumpkins and other squashes back to Spain , where they were given the name calabaza, a word of Arabic origin meaning "gourd"; calabazin is the diminutive applied to courgettes. The Catalan names carabas and carabasò are similarly derived. The Latin word cucurbita and the Late Latin word cucutia.both mean "gourd". Their derivatives are the Old French word cohourde and thence the modern French word courge, and the modern Italian word zucca, which also apply to squash, and from which come the diminutive names courgettes and zuchinni.

So are all "gourd" vegetables merely members of the American squash or cucurbita family? Apparently not, as references to such vegetables appear in 12th and 13th century recipes. There are of course many gourd-shaped fruits and vegetables, but the Edible Italian Gourd is in fact the white-flowered gourd Lagenaria sicereia, an Old World plant extensively used in Chinese and Vietnamese cooking. I am told that cucumbers can be substituted in an emergency. Cucumbers (Cucumeris sativus) are of Asian origin and have been eaten in southern Europe since at least Roman times, although they appear not to have been cultivated for human consumption in Britain or Ireland until the 14th century. They would not meet the American Gourd Society's definition of a gourd, being neither hardshell nor ornamental, but do form part of the biological gourd or Cucurbitaceae family (aka cucurbits or vine crops) along with melons and watermelons. I have also read that Luffa or Loofah (sponge) Gourds are

Although the best-known variety is distinctly gourd-like in shape and appearance, aubergines are biologically unrelated to the gourds discussed here. Technically a berry, the aubergine fruit is usually cooked and eaten as a vegetable. Its mild flavour adds a harmonious accent to spicy overtones of Asian cooking, and fits in well with the equally zesty cuisines of Mediterranean countries, where popular dishes include Greek Moussaka and Italian Eggplant Parmesan.

In this country, aubergines are
The famed Almagro pickled aubergine is sold in tins or jars and proudly displayed by the very best tapas bars in Barcelona , Madrid and all over Spain .

Aubergines were first cultivated in India and China some 4000 years ago. A 5th century AD scroll records that Chinese ladies of fashion made a black dye from aubergines to stain their teeth - which, after polishing, shone like silver. They have been grown and eaten in Persia since around 1500 BC. Little known in the ancient Mediterranean world, aubergines were introduced into North Africa and Spain in the Middle Ages by Arab traders. Spanish explorers then carried them to the New World . They did not arrive in France until the 17th century, and were regarded as very exotic items in Britain and Ireland until the 1960s.

The most common type resembles an elongated pear with smooth, glossy, dark purple skin, but aubergines around the world come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, from spherical to cylindrical, and from tiny to enormous. Ranging from 2 or 3 cm to 40 cm in length, there are long thin Japanese aubergines, courgette-like Chinese aubergines, small golf-ball or grape-like green Thai aubergines, rosy pink or purple and white striped aubergines, and creamy-white, egg-shaped baby aubergines.

One theory holds that it was this last variety that was originally labelled "eggplant"; another is that aubergines smell vaguely like eggs when frying! The Italian name melanzane and the Greek name melitzane come from the 16th century scientific classification of the fruit as mala insana, meaning unhealthy or mad apple. The French name used nowadays in Britain and Ireland is derived from Catalan, and like the Spanish and Portuguese names, came from the Arabic al-binjn, al-badhinan or bathinjan. This was a corruption of the Persian badnjan, which, I recently learned, translates literally as "eggplant"!

Interestingly, it is a sexual plant. You can differentiate easily, as females have a "dash" shaped scar in the depression at their blossom end, while males have a round "dot" scar, and also have fewer seeds.

In Love in a Time of Cholera, the great Columbian writer Garcia Marquez recounts a torrid affair with a woman whose name reminded him of berenjena. In the otherwise excellent English translation I read last year, this name was most unerotically rendered as eggplant! Wouldn't aubergine have sounded so much more romantic?
See also