For the love of gourd

Do you know your triambles from your sibleys? Amy Goldman certainly does. Here, the passionate pumpkin picker reveals why there's more to squash than the humble butternut and courgette

Sunday 07 November 2004 01:00

I'd like to coin a new term: Cucurbitacean (kyoo-kur-bit-a'se-en). A person who regards pumpkins or squashes with deep, often rapturous love. This love manifests in many ways, but is always characterised by a pervasive pattern of attachment and an abiding concern for the preservation of the species.

I'd like to coin a new term: Cucurbitacean (kyoo-kur-bit-a'se-en). A person who regards pumpkins or squashes with deep, often rapturous love. This love manifests in many ways, but is always characterised by a pervasive pattern of attachment and an abiding concern for the preservation of the species.

On the bulletin board above my desk, I keep a running tally of squashes: those I "love" and those I "like". I first became enchanted by them when I saw one in a shop in New Zealand on an autumn day 15 years ago. That such art forms exist in nature! I'd never seen a blue squash before, let alone one with three convoluted lobes separated by deep fissures. It looked more like a three-cornered hat or even a punched-down plush pillow. Only after obtaining seeds, and growing triamble in my own garden, did I discover that the flavour of its wall-to-wall orange flesh was outstanding - even when eaten raw. Since then, scores of other squashes have captured my heart. I'm devoted to Marina di Chioggia, winter luxury pie, Seminole, Hubbard, buttercup... The list goes on.

Sometimes, I don't know where pumpkins begin and I end. They consume me and I consume them. I crisscross the globe in search of seeds and am a regular at pumpkin festivals in France and markets from Salta in Argentina, to Venice. My house and barn are filled to the rafters with squashes, glorious squashes. They adorn the mantel, grace every worksurface and line the hallways, windowsills, and shelves. I have a dedicated freezer to store their seeds. By the way I collect these beauties, you'd think they were going out of style and, in a way, they are - of the 150 varieties in my book, The Compleat Squash, only about two dozen are widely grown.

From the time I had my first garden at the age of 18 and realised that I seemed to have a gift for kitchen gardening, I've had my hands in the soil. And a lot of soil is required to produce the hundreds of pumpkins I grow every summer. Unfortunately, my land in the Hudson Valley in New York State is less than ideal for agriculture. The land, with just a scattering of open meadows, is full of rock outcroppings and water. The property has been labelled "bad'' for 250 years. It has taken me a long time to turn bad to good, and I'm still not done.

Whenever I set foot in either of my two vegetable gardens, one an acre in size and the other only 40ft by 60ft, I step softly over the natural springs that well up here and there. I have tried to enrich the soil by adding pond muck and, for the most part, these efforts have been successful. I will never forget, however, the disaster that struck when I added hot phytotoxic compost and my entire crop died overnight. I was totally inconsolable.

Back then, visions of pumpkins and squashes had already begun to dance in my head, but these Cucurbitas were merely a means to an end - winning blue ribbons at the Dutchess County Fair in New York. Learning how to win, and to win big, was for me the equivalent of earning another doctoral degree. It involved producing blameless, blemishless specimens for the third Monday in August every year. And this feat had to be accomplished 70 times over, since there were that many horticultural classes to attend. I grew thousands of varieties of vegetables in the hope of wowing fairgoers and judges alike.

I knew that in order to take home the grand champion rosette, I'd have to master the Cucurbitas. Squashes and pumpkins make up the largest competitive category - larger even than tomatoes or potatoes. Judges grade Cucurbitas for uniformity, table quality and size. Taste tests never enter into the official reckoning; these contests are about form over flavour.

I eventually won the grand championship. Ingenuity and sacrifice were the royal road to the winner's circle. Apparently, no one else was meshuga enough to grow courgettes and straightneck squashes into plastic bags to preserve their pristine complexions. Or spend hours matching up pairs of summer crooknecks with just the right arch of triumph. Acorn squashes had to be heart-shaped and deeply furrowed; Hubbards tapered at each end were preferred. And forget about eating these until after the fair. I sometimes think about all of the delicious meals that I missed, and I will always regret harvesting the biggest pumpkin that I had ever grown (440lb), just to exhibit it in August. Who knows what weight it might have attained if it had been left on the vine until October?

Over time I learnt that squashes, such as triamble, lead a tenuous life, available from only one or two small seed companies that might close down at any time. Thousands of good old- fashioned vegetables are dead and gone, victims of a wave of consolidation in the seed industry, market forces and the advent of first-generation hybrids. Since the early 1990s, by the time I had committed myself to the heirloom seed movement and won three grand championships, my conversion to squash was complete.

The Compleat Squash is where food, art and gardening meet. My aim was to catalogue these marvels before they disappear. You will read stories that I hope will forever change your conception of squashes, and you will learn how to cook, grow and preserve them. They total 150 heirloom varieties - all grown by me in my garden over the course of two summers. Some are less old and rare than others, but all are standard, open-pollinated varieties. I have tried to capture their essence in words, to describe my beloved squashes so that visions of them will dance in your head as they do in mine.

'The Compleat Squash' is published by Workman, priced £30. To order a copy for £27 (including p&p) call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

Four species in all their glory

'Cucurbita maxima'

If all you've ever known is acorn, or butternut, then you will flip your lid when you taste the likes of buttercup, delicious or sibley. Maximas have a number of virtues that other species lack: mild flavour, high solids, few fibres and brilliant orange flesh, making them a great choice for preserving. The largest pumpkins and squashes and some of the most beautiful - Iran, Galeuse d'Eysines, Queensland blue, strawberry crown and triamble - are members of this species.

'Cucurbita moschata'

Blindingly brilliant orange flesh - high in carotenoids - is one of the most striking features of this species. The best of the lot, Musquée de Provence, St Petersburg and Canada crookneck, are similar to maxima although many are stringy, coarse, or musky in flavour. Fortunately this can be neutralised in the cooking process, especially if they are roasted not steamed. Moschata can be eaten immature (as the Chinese do), but Americans prefer it as a long-lived winter-squash.

'Cucurbita pepo'

Cucurbita pepo is one of the most popular species of all and the most diverse. It includes favourites such as the courgette as well as the familiar Hallowe'en pumpkin. This species is native to Mexico and the US and performs well in temperate areas with cool climates. The Native Americans domesticated the older forms, such as the pumpkin, acorn and scallop, while some of the elongated fruit forms, such as cocozelle and courgette, were developed recently in Europe.

'Cucurbita argyrosperma'

This species is well adapted to hot, dry conditions and was domesticated in Mexico. Its flesh is coarse, thin and pale and its large seeds, which are easy to extract, are an important ingredient in Latin American cuisine. Hard, corky stems are typical of this breed and usually the fruits have thick, elongated necks. Argyrosperma and moschata are regarded as sister species and both are partially infertile. Until the 20th century, the two were lumped together in the same species.

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