The French omelette and the Italian frittata are just
about as different from each other as the French are from the Italians. One is
all fluff and show, a bit like a peacock showing its tail. Don’t get me wrong:
I love a good French omelette-the lightness of the egg as it is fluffed in the
pan, the flavour of good country butter and the last-minute touch, a garnish
(the most famous being the seventeenth-century treat of carp roe and tuna). A
French omelette needs to be consumed toute suite, otherwise it loses its
oomph, like when the peacock folds his tail and walks away. The butter congeals
on the plate, as does the fat from the lardons, or bacon bits, and, well, you
get the idea.
Although the frittata is the
omelette’s cousin, sometimes it’s hard to believe they are related. The Collins
Italian-English Dictionary translates omelette directly to frittata,
but the differences are vast. They have in common their base ingredient, egg,
and that they are both cooked. They also share a role in an aphorism: in both
French and Italian, the saying goes ‘you can’t make an omelette without breaking
eggs’ (non si può fare una frittata senza rompere le uova.) The Culinary
Institute of America’s The New Professional Chef actually classifies
them separately and keeps an almost clean distinction between the omelette and
the frittata, although it does tag frittata onto the farmhouse omelette.
A frittata can be eaten hot or cold; an omelette
cannot. An omelette takes its prestige from the chef’s skills in moving the
eggs around in the pan to get that light fluffy texture. While some chefs even
separate the whites from the yolks to achieve a light omelette, making a frittata
involves concentrating on the ingredients the egg holds together.
The friends I entertained for lunch recently are not
vegetarians, but because they eat loads of veggies but meat only rarely, I decided
to prepare an array of vegetable dishes. I made autumn eggplants, sliced and
grilled, then marinated in garlic, parsley, olive oil and chilli; potatoes with
rosemary and very good extra virgin olive oil from the Chianti countryside;
day-old homemade bread, grilled, rubbed with garlic, and sprinkled with Maldon
sea salt, wild oregano and olive oil; orange and polenta torte; crusty bread
fresh out of the oven; and Urbano’s chilli marinated olives.
While shopping for the meal, I found smallish locally
grown zucchini with the flower still attached. Their season is coming to an
end, so I bought abundantly.
With little thought other than savoring the last of
the season’s flavors, I chopped the zucchini into rounds, doing the same with
the small flowers. I then sautéed them in two pans to keep the heat up, with
extra virgin olive oil, fresh mint, garlic, chilli, a few salted capers from
Sicily thrown in at the last minute, and Maldon sea salt. As I ended up with so
many sautéed zucchinis and still had five eggs remaining from the orange and
polenta torte I decided one of the pans would become a frittata.
When the zucchini were cooked, and still hot in the
pan I seasoned them, and into a bowl cracked the five eggs, a little sea salt
and pepper. I also pounded two or three anchovies and threw them in to give extra
flavour and to use less salt. I added a little more olive oil to the pan and
threw the eggs in, scrambling them a little until half way through cooking then
throwing the whole pan in the oven to set the eggs. I finished by sprinkling
shavings of parmesan to melt into the frittata. My guests arrived at this
moment, so by the time we had aperitivo, bruschetta and cicoria, the frittata
was warm, relaxed and ready.
It was the star of the meal.
An omelette can be sweet or
savoury, is cooked on one side only, can be runny on the inside, but is always
whatever is in season and showcases it, whether it be zucchini with
flowers, the small local carciofi violetti just coming into season, or,
in spring, the fine frittata con piselli di primavera. Or Calabrian
sausage with red pepper and potato. It can be eaten hot or cold. The Italians
eat frittata at room temperature, sliced into wedges. When prepared well, the fuoco is the local produce held together by the egg.
Perhaps it’s not a question of omelette vs. frittata,
but how to enjoy the difference.
However, one question yet to be
resolved is where the word omelette comes from. Some say it is based on
the Latin, from the Roman dish ova e mellita, which is a sweet honey
omelette dating back to the seventeenth century. Larousse’s Gastronomique claims the word comes from the French lamelle, small blade. In any case,
it seems that Larousse never had the fortune to enjoy a typical frittata, as
the word never appears in his food encyclopaedia.
Shiny and well laid out produce isn’t always the best. To get the
best local, seasonal veggies, try Maurizo at the Sant’Ambrogio market. For
cheeses, I go to Urbano, located in the indoor portion of the same market.