Oh look, hallowe’en. Every supermarket entrance glows with orange globes, and even shop seems to be festooned with fake cobwebs, mildly mouldy cut gourds and giant spiders. What larks, eh. What a bloody waste of a really good vegetable.
I love pumpkins, and their occasionally-lumped-in-with-them-cousins, squashes. But I loathe the nasty, stringy things passed off as pumpkins in shops at this time of year. The spaghetti types are designed for cutting and sculpting, and are about as nice to eat as a fat free fruit yoghurt. I don’t like this trend and I don’t understand it. Food waste is bad enough without actively marketing a vegetable which is delicious at all times except when it is most popular and easy to obtain. Pointless, much? Bluerk.
Trouble is, I see all the pumpkins, crave all the pumpkins and then I struggle to get hold of an actual tasty pumpkin, such is the frenzy which seems to surround cutting the buggers up and letting them rot away. You can probably pick up something decent at a market, farmers’ or otherwise, but as ever, the best solution is to grow your own. I grew Crown Prince squashes this year, along with Peter Pan and something else which failed and the label got squashed into the ground so I can’t remember what it was. The Pans were immense. The Princes were even better (thank you, James Wong, for the recommendation). Sadly, I’ve eaten them all, so I’m back at square one.
I do quite fancy carving a gourd. Or the pre-pumpkin British favourite, a turnip. But it seems you can’t get decent sized turnips easily unless you grow them, and I ate all of mine ages ago. So I’m going to attempt to seek out an edible pumpkin because WHAT IS THE POINT OF HAVING IT AND NOT EATING IT?
If you are lucky enough to have a decent variety knocking about, and you are planning on carving and cooking with it, or indeed just cooking with it, whey hey! There are loads of lovely sounding modern takes on pumpkin eating about, from oriental soups to warming breads. And it is divine slathered in dripping and salt and stuck in a hot oven. It’s amazingly versatile. Yet it’s only really been recently that we Brits have properly rediscovered how great it is (and presumably lots of people still haven’t, or it’d be pitchforks at dawn at the local supermarket to burn the inedible versions). Certainly my family never ate it growing up, and I don’t think we were alone in that. (We didn’t make them into lanterns either, though we did ceremoniously burn one of my teachers in effigy every year on Nov 5th, which trumped hallowe’en every time round my way). The only thing I’d ever known anyone make with it was pumpkin pie. I demanded to make it one year, and was allowed to make an American recipe from, I suspect, the BBC Good Food mag. It was very sweet and rather vile. The next time I encountered pumpkin cooked was another pumpkin pie, cooked by a classmate who was American, and asked her mum to send her tinned pumpkin as the thought of using a real life vegetable made her feel a bit funny (you can now buy the very same prepared pumpkin mix in Waitrose, I note). Again, sweet, icky and no actual pumpkin taste. Sigh. Since then, squashes have appeared on most tables as a fairly staple winter food, although I fear that the link between pumpkin and squash isn’t quite as obvious as it should be. Say pumpkin recipe, and I suspect a lot of people still think pie. And most of the articles I’ve seen about what to do with pumpkin still contain a pie recipe…..and they all look a tad scary-sweet to me.
Fast rewind to the seventeenth century though, when pumpkins first started to appear in recipe books, and suddenly pumpkin pie sounds much more interesting. At that point they were often called pompions, related probably to the French name for it at the time, pompon. Hannah Woolley (1670) has a recipe with pepper and salt and sharp apples. She also fried them in brandy batter. Robert May (1660) also uses apples, and rosemary and an egg ‘froise’ all layered up together. Even at the end of the nineteenth century recipe authors were suggested the addition of apples to pumpkin pie (or a touch of paprika). Such pies seem to continue the early modern habit of combining flavours which we would regard as being either sweet or savoury into one. Even in the Georgian period such combinations remained popular, and for good reason. They’d’ve been consumed after the main savoury dishes, but before the unequivocally sweet dessert items; a kind of bridging course.
Pumpkin was also preserved, made into soups, and, possibly the closest predecessor to the modern pumpkin pie, used for puddings. Boiled, pulped, and mixed with cream and eggs, it could be flavoured with booze, spice and rose water or orange flower water and then baked or boiled in a mould. Eliza Leslie, an early nineteenth century American author, has a lovely sounding version with wine, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, rose water, loads of butter, and cream, which she advises being baked in a buttered dish. It’s only a small step to putting it in pastry, right? A sort of unholy amalgam, which should be great, but leads directly to the kind of tooth-achingly nasty thing my teenage self turned out.
So, my advice? Get a decent pumpkin, do excellent modern things to it, and if you really want to go down the pie route, make a proper sweet-savoury pie with. Just to try. Maybe with some cheese……