Pumpkin sales were a slow burn in the UK about 10 years ago. Maybe adopting yet another American custom was the stumbling block. More recently, for many British families they have become an annual tradition, so much so that 15 million are now grown each year. Growers tend to be in the flatlands of Lincolnshire and the Midlands, where Will Simkin’s family of Essington Farm have been growing fresh fruit and veg produce since 1892.
Essington Farm is well established in the pumpkin market producing 50,000 a year for wholesalers off 15 acres; a sizeable increase from the 8000 produced in 2015. Will has cleverly seen the opportunity of making pumpkin harvest an event, with his own version of pick your own. Customers collect their own pumpkins from the field in a wheelbarrow and pay Will a much better price than wholesale into the bargain. As he says: “Pumpkins have been increasing in demand over the last couple of years. Pumpkins have grown to be an October must have, just like a Christmas tree in December.” On Essington Farm the main crop is the familiar Halloween pumpkin but Will always likes to plant some speciality strains for customers that want different colours, including pink, yellow, white, and grey. The other varieties include Becky, Racer, Rocket, Rival, Golden Medal, Cargo and Kratos.
Pumpkins are not the easiest crop to establish with several hurdles to overcome. Planted in May slugs make a beeline for the young seedlings and then the plants often need watering throughout summer to stop them drying out. Autumn presents its own problems where stones and wet soil can puncture and infect the skin of the pumpkins causing them to rot before they get a chance to be sent out to wholesalers.
Pumpkins are a labour-intensive harvest
At harvest time it’s all hands to the deck, as each pumpkin must be individually cut and transported to the warehouse - it’s a highly labour-intensive fruit, which is easily prone to bruising which can easily drag down yield. Farmers often store harvested pumpkins in greenhouses, partly for protection but also to allow sunlight to deepen the colour of the skin.
Naturally there is a cliff edge at the end of harvest - no one wants a pumpkin after October 31, except pigs and cattle who willingly finish them off.
The Pumpkin Story
It’s believed pumpkins were originally grown in the countries of Central America, especially Mexico and in the foothills of the Andes. Mexicans dried strips of pumpkin and wove them into floor mats. Although for the most part pumpkins were mainly used for eating, where long strips of pumpkin were roasted on an open fire and eaten. The first versions of pumpkin pie appeared around this time as well, when colonists sliced off the top of a pumpkin, removed the seeds, and filled the central cavity with milk, spices, and honey. The whole pumpkin was then dragged to the edge of the fire and allowed to bake in the hot ashes.
Explorers, expeditions, and traders soon realised the potential of the pumpkin, which quickly spread them around the rest of the world. Farmers and horticulturists were keen to cross-pollinate different strains so that now the genus of herbaceous vines, Cucurbita, includes more than 100 varieties of squash, pumpkin, and gourd. Cucumbers and melons are in the same family.
The pumpkin is a fruit rather than a vegetable and varies in size enormously from a small average Halloween pumpkin at about 2 kilos to record beating giants at more than 460 kg.
There are numerous variations of shape and similar variations of rind from smooth to ridged to deeply lobed, while the stems are prickly, firm, green-brown and angular.
The flesh inside ranges from bright orange, to yellow or even white. A large central cavity is filled with a woolly pulp and many cream-coloured seeds, which can be dried and eaten.
The flesh is dense and thick but as it has a high-water content it is always better baked, roasted, sautéed, grilled or fried. It can be added to curries and stir-fries, pureed, and added to soups, stews, and casseroles, sliced in green salads, or stuffed with vegetables, cheese, and meat and baked whole. From its origins it is still a popular ingredient in Mexican cooking where you will regularly see it in recipes for empanadas, and quesadillas. The cooked flavour is mild, and it develops slightly earthy, nutty, sweet flavour where it acts well as a vehicle for stronger flavours. Popular pumpkin dishes include pumpkin hummous, pumpkin soup, pumpkin, and sage baked gnocchi. Pumpkin has regularly been touted as a new superfood, containing plenty of magnesium, potassium, vitamin A and antioxidants. The orange flesh and rind contain plenty of beta-carotene.
It is strange that butternut squash, of the same family, has become a supermarket staple and makes regular appearances on restaurant menus in the UK, whereas pumpkin is still only seen as something to carve during Halloween.
In the UK butternut squash is the best-known species, which has become accepted into mainstream domestic and commercial kitchens. However, there are other squash species that are just as delicious and can be used interchangeably, for the most part, in recipes.
Other squashes that are available in the UK include the Acorn Squash, which is dark green with orange-yellow flesh and a sweet flavour, which is ideal for mashing or stuffing. The Crown Prince Squash, which have bluish-grey skins and orange flesh. They have a firm texture and nutty taste. Best eaten in roasted chunks. While the Japanese Kabocha squash is dark green and flatter. The Kabocha fluffs inside when baked making them great for soups and stews.