The beginning of the pumpkin and squash season marks the shift from summer to autumn. These autumnal fruits originated in central America and it’s thought that it was Christopher Columbus who first brought the seeds back to Europe.
Today, Europe’s largest pumpkin growers are based here in the UK, in the market town of Spalding in Lincolnshire. David Bowman Pumpkins Ltd first grew pumpkins in the early 1970s when David’s father started growing them for fun. A seed sown here and there, in amongst the marrows grown for the Branston pickle factory. That all changed though, the year that he came back from the market with a lucrative order for the pumpkins. Realising the potential of the pumpkin market, they added them to their range of vegetables. It was such a successful move that by 1990 all the other vegetable lines were dropped to concentrate on pumpkin growing. Now they produce around 3 million pumpkins each year. The majority of these pumpkins are destined for Hallowe’en lanterns so varieties are chosen for their size and ease of carving rather than for any culinary qualities.
Pumpkins and squashes have far more to offer than mere candle holders though. Within the pumpkin family there’s an impressive range of varieties, producing an array of beautifully coloured fruits with differing shapes, textures and flavours. From single portion sized miniature fruits, to the larger blue skinned Crown Prince with its dense waxy orange flesh and the unusual ‘strings’ of the pale yellow spaghetti squash. As well as the long question mark shaped Trombolino, the chestnut flavoured Potimarron and the eye catching Turk’s Turban to name but a few.
The first recipe that springs to mind when thinking about pumpkins has to be the American classic, pumpkin pie. Here's recipe for a dairy and gluten free version. A lighter variation of this spiced custardy filling is also fantastic as the base of a crème brûlée. Pumpkins give soup a rich creamy texture, perhaps served with a slice of pumpkin bread. Mashed or pureed, it’s a delicious alternative to potato. Pumpkins and squashes are also ideal for roasting, either as they are with a drizzle of oil or with robust flavours like rosemary and lemon. Try chunks of roast pumpkin in winter salads with roast red onion slices, feta, a scattering of toasted pumpkin seeds and a drizzle of pumpkin seed oil - a richly flavoured oil made by pressing the roasted seeds. The smaller individual sized fruits are perfect for stuffing and baking whole. Whilst warm pumpkin scones served with butter and plum jam are a lovely autumnal treat.
Sow pumpkin seeds in modules, under cover between April and May with the seeds on their edge rather than flat to prevent them rotting. In June, plant out, spaced well apart, in ground that is well manured - they are hungry plants. They’ll also benefit from feeding once a week with a seaweed based feed and keep them well watered especially in dry weather. Trailing varieties can be trained up wigwams and arches. By October the leaves will usually have died back, exposing the fruits, if they haven't just remove the foliage with secateurs. It’s best to leave them to ripen on the plants as long as possible, ideally letting them bathe in the autumn sunshine. Cutting the stems on either side of the main stem, so that it looks like a ‘T’ shape helps to stop the stems rotting during storage. Kept in a cool, dry place they should store for several months. Good varieties to try include Crown Prince, Invincible, Red/Uchiki Kuri, Potimarron, Turk’s Turban, Festival and Munchkin.