Pumpkins and squashes

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Britain's taste in squashes is pretty sophisticated these days. Thankfully, we're no longer restricted to the giant marrow, that worthy but dull member of the squash family whose appearance in the shops every autumn could sink the spirits of the most able cook.

Britain's taste in squashes is pretty sophisticated these days. Thankfully, we're no longer restricted to the giant marrow, that worthy but dull member of the squash family whose appearance in the shops every autumn could sink the spirits of the most able cook.

Peter Barfoot, Chairman of Barfoot's of Botley Ltd in Hampshire, is one of the prime instigators in widening our Cucurbita horizons, supplying as he does Sainsbury's, Tesco and Waitrose with an extraordinary range of hard-skinned winter squash. "We now grow Butternut, Onion, Acorn, Gem, Spaghetti, Kabocha and Crown Prince squash, as well as various pumpkins like Ghost Rider, Tom Fox and [the extremely large] Sumo," he says. "Butternut squash is the most popular and the hardest to grow, as it needs 90 Mediterranean days from the point of germination, whereas the others need only 60."

To ensure enough warmth and heat they are planted out early, under a cosy fleece. As a result, they are usually harvested in August and September, rather than the more traditional September and October. Once picked, squashes can be kept throughout the winter in a cool, airy place. Slowly, the water in their flesh (around 90 per cent) will evaporate, intensifying the squashes' flavour.

Not all chefs find it easy to buy squash varieties. John Williams, chef and joint proprietor of Sol in Shrewsbury, gets his from Birmingham Market, rather from the local farmers' market. "They're not very exotic in Shropshire," says Williams. "So, although I get offered lots of marrows, I tend to stick to butternut squash and pumpkins." These Williams transforms into a garlic and nutmeg-flavoured purée, to serve with his roast venison and braised lettuce; curried chutney to eat with grilled scallops; or to use for a creamy pumpkin ice cream with blackcurrant crisps.

The earthy, sweet taste of most winter squash, including pumpkins, makes them perfectly adapted to both sweet and savoury dishes, regardless of whether it is a soup or a soufflé. Early in the 13th century, no English monastic garden was complete without its pumpkins. These, however, were coarse-textured gourds, far removed from the fine-flavoured pompion introduced from France 300 years later. Pumpkin became chic, and the rich indulged in luxuriously spiced and layered, sweet egg-custard pies of pumpkin, currants and apples. A descendent of such a pie was taken by English colonists to America, before pumpkin gradually fell from fashion here. Ironic, then, that it was American farmers who inspired their English counterparts to reinstate it, along with myriad other squash.

The proliferation of pumpkins has, rather bizarrely, spawned a new art form that's sweeping the countryside. Surreal figures peer over hedges or lurk around farm gates: their bright, curvaceous bodies made from vividly coloured squashes, pumpkins and gourds are tempting families back on to farms to celebrate Hallowe'en (some may even try cooking with them, as well as carving). Some are interactive installations that hoot or howl if the viewer unwittingly breaks an infrared beam. Pumpkin-buttocked gardeners in low-slung trousers edge up to shocked, rotund pumpkin ladies in comic tableaux.

Rob Keene, with his staff at Over Farm in Gloucestershire, has become one of the best exponents of this new craft. "When I visited the States some years ago, I couldn't believe how many different types of pumpkin and squash they were selling," he recalls. He decided to plant his first row of pumpkins, and sold out long before 31 October. Filled with enthusiasm, he planted four acres the following year – only to find himself confronted with a mountain of unsold pumpkins.

Undeterred, Mr Keene set about building his first pumpkin sculpture. Thomas the Tank Engine, Minnie Mouse, Goldilocks and the Three Bears and the Millennium Dome all followed, along with pumpkin-carving competitions, haunted hay rides and Hallowe'en parties to raise money for local charities. As his pumpkin events grew, so the word spread, until customers were pouring into the shop. He now grows and sells 14 types of squash, including five varieties of pumpkin, alongside his other crops.

A crash course in squashes

Marrows, squashes and pumpkins belong to the genus Cucurbita which contains about 25 species, of which only a few are well known as cultivated plants. One of the hardest species – C pepo – includes vegetable marrows, courgettes, some squashes and some pumpkins, and is thought to have originated in Mexico.

Acorn squash: These dainty little dark-green-and-orange squashes have a delicate taste and soft, pulpy flesh. In other words, they are the perfect vehicle for stuffing at chichi dinner parties. Try baking them filled with individual portions of a precooked rich beef stew.

Butternut squash: This is a cook's favourite, with its firm-textured, mild-flavoured orange flesh and few seeds. Shaped like a large, beige pear, it is excellent in soups, ravioli stuffings, risotto, stews and pies.

Crown Prince: This is the most stylish squash you can buy from the supermarket, with its steel-blue skin and vibrant orange flesh. There is only one problem: how to cook such a beauty? It has a firmer, more flavoursome flesh than a Butternut squash, so if you're feeling ruthless, cut into wedges and roast.

Kabocha squash: A trendy, up-and-coming squash that is much favoured by New Zealand chefs; their farmers export huge quantities of these to Japan. You either love it or hate it, because of its strong flavour. Sometimes sold as Buttercup or Japanese squash, there are many varieties of Kabocha squash. Its slightly fibrous texture makes it ideal for roasting or baking, as it holds its shape well.

Pumpkin: These come in many different shapes and sizes, from the tennis ball-sized Wee-B-Little (sold in some farm shops) to the gargantuan 30-40lb Sumo. Most Hallowe'en specimens are bred to be carved rather than eaten, so have little flesh and a large seed cavity. Prudent cooks can reduce their somewhat watery flesh for soups, custard-based pies or pumpkin bread. The seeds can be lightly roasted and eaten. Look out for West Indian pumpkins which are sold by the wedge and have lush, flavoursome flesh.

Pumpkin mania

Sol, 82 Wyle Cop, Shrewsbury SY1 1UT, 01743 340560.

If you want to visit the Keene's farm, look out for a giant, helium-filled pumpkin balloon near their farm shop at Over Farm Market, Over, Gloucester GL2 8DB, 01452 521014.

Check out the Farm Retail Association on 02380 362150 or look at its website www.farmshopping.com for your nearest farm pumpkin event.

Grow your own

Those enamoured with unusual squashes might find the following sources useful: HDRA (Henry Doubleday Research Association) Heritage Seed Library protects rare and endangered vegetables. If you join, for £18 per annum, you can choose six different seed packets from its annual catalogue – the 12lb, zeppelin-shaped Pink Banana, for example, which originated in Mexico and only reached America in the 1980s. Or maybe the original, rampant, white-and-green striped Mandan that was grown by the Mandan Indian tribe. One plant can yield up to 25 squashes, each weighing 3lb, so pick them when they reach the size of tennis balls. Contact Ryton Organic Gardens, Coventry CV8 3LG, 02476 303517.

Simpson's Seeds Ltd sell more than 20 varieties of pumpkins and winter squash. Perhaps the round, orange-skinned Muscade de Provence with its sweet, nutmeg-scented flesh? To order a catalogue, contact The Walled Garden Nursery, Horningsham, Wiltshire BA12 7NQ, 01985 845004.

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