Good gourd! Pumpkin is the new potato

You might think they're only good for carving cute lanterns once a year. But Britain's foodies say the future is orange. By Anita Chaudhuri
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Something spooky is occurring in the world of pumpkins. No, really. Pumpkins, previously only seen in Charlie Brown cartoons and tacky plastic displays in Harvester restaurants, are now seriously fashionable. So fashionable, in fact, that there have been reports of pumpkin rustling in West Sussex, prime pumpkin-growing country.

Something spooky is occurring in the world of pumpkins. No, really. Pumpkins, previously only seen in Charlie Brown cartoons and tacky plastic displays in Harvester restaurants, are now seriously fashionable. So fashionable, in fact, that there have been reports of pumpkin rustling in West Sussex, prime pumpkin-growing country.

Warm weather in August and early September has meant a bumper crop this year. Farmers are so worried about the escalating rate of thefts from their pumpkin patches that they have had to take drastic action. One crop, bound for Sainsbury's, has had to be protected by round-the-clock security guards.

"This year's pumpkin crop is larger and more orange than ever before and is proving an eye-catching temptation," said a Sainsbury's spokeswoman. "That's why we took the extraordinary step of employing security to protect them. The pumpkin patrol watched over the fields until they were ready to be harvested."

One man who has no need of a security detail is John Handbury, who last week took the prize for growing the biggest pumpkin in British garden history. His weighed in at more than 58 stone. It took eight men to haul the pumpkin from his garden in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. He's not saying what he intends to cook with the offending vegetable but he could do better than to consult the chefs at the River Cafe. Although pumpkin is primarily associated with North America, it is also a staple of Italian cuisine. The River Cafe was one of the first restaurants in London to serve it, in risotto, ravioli and a spicy soup. Indian cookery also favours pumpkin with a popular curry adding potato, cumin, turmeric, ginger and chilli to wedges of pumpkin.

These days, pumpkin is on the menu at dozens of fashionable establishments, although it does tend to turn up in the same three forms. The Sugar Club in Soho, central London, does a nice pumpkin and coconut curry, Alastair Little serves pumpkin ravioli, and Bank in London serves up pumpkin macaroni.

Allegedly more of us are going to be attempting to cook it at home too. Sainsbury's estimates that a staggering 300,000 have been ordered for the Hallowe'en rush. "People aren't just using them for decorations any more, they're cooking with them too," says a spokeswoman. So what is the best way to cook it? "Er, I'm not sure. Did you see any recipe booklets in your local shop?"

One of the country's successful pumpkin farmers, Ralph Upton of The Lodge at Slindon on the South Downs, has been growing pumpkins for 25 years. Upton says his recipe booklet, Pumpkins, squashes and things ... and how to cook them, has proved very popular. "People didn't know how to cook them until we got out a recipe book. We used to give people squash to take home and they'd come back and tell us how to cook them. We worked up the recipe book from that."

Most cookery books feature a few lines on how to cook it, and it sounds easy. All the recipes give the same general instructions. "Scoop out the flesh, chop, cook in butter for 30 minutes, puree and put in a pie, pasta or liquidise for soup."

With quivering heart, I decide to embark on making a pumpkin pie. I say quivering because for the last 25 years I have secretly harboured a minor obsession with pumpkin pie. At my Glasgow primary school, our teacher Miss Simpson was engaged to an American gentleman and for months we were regaled with tales of Thanksgiving feasts. A beautifully drawn American children's comic did the rounds, Cricket and Company, which featured a recipe for pumpkin pie, a confection described as melt-in-the-mouth pastry filled with sweet soft pumpkin, cinnamon and brown sugar.

To this day I still haven't eaten pumpkin pie. But even buying pumpkin is not as simple as it looks. By pulling out a particularly fine, two pound specimen from the stack, I cause a pumpkin avalanche at my local Waitrose and one lands on my foot. I hobble home with my prize and start carving out the flesh. This proves impossible because I do not have a chainsaw. After half an hour of fruitless sawing, I have two bent breadknives and stigmata on my palm.

"The first rule of cooking pumpkin is that you must cook it before you try and take the skin off," explains Melanie Leyshon of Good Food Magazine. "It's best to use a small one, they're tastier. Cut it into wedges, drizzle with olive oil and bake for an hour. Then the flesh will come off and you can puree it. It's delicious served with butter and sea salt." For the novice, she suggests buying yellow pumpkin, which tastes more like butternut squash, or one of the new grey-skinned varieties such as Crown Prince.

She too has noticed the appearance of pumpkin on smart menus. "It's very versatile and colourful, but the problem for the home cook is that it can be bland. Like tofu, it absorbs the flavours of everything else. That's why it's best to spice it up with lemongrass or curry powder. Another reason why restaurants love it is it's cheap and it keeps for weeks."

Back to my pumpkin pie. Gingerly, I take the roasted pumpkin out of the oven but too late realise my mistake - generous spoonfuls of sea salt have no place in America's legendary dessert. I limp back to the supermarket to buy another specimen and notice something very cheering. In their infinite wisdom, Waitrose has added something to the pumpkin display. Large tins of Libby's Pumpkin Puree. Now that just leaves the pastry.

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