From Halloween to Hogwarts

pumpkins reign supreme by Maggie Chaplin

The “Trick or Treat” season is almost upon us and you may have or be about to create a big orange pumpkin with enormous empty eye sockets and an evil jagged-toothed grin to sit on your doorstep.

For most of us in the UK these giant winter squashes are synonymous with October 31st and we only think of them in terms of being a chance to exercise our creative skills and carve them into wicked-looking caricatures of a human face. We aim to make them appear even more menacing by hollowing them out and putting a flickering candle inside.

The process involves a lot of gouging and slicing and sometimes swearing. Pumpkin flesh in the hands of an amateur, doesn’t lend itself to precision and fine detail. The chances are that the enthusiastic sculpting will involve throwing the excavated contents onto the compost heap, followed a couple of weeks later by the now collapsing lantern.

Although there’s a long tradition in Britain of carving crude faces from vegetables, particularly at Halloween, pumpkins are a relatively recent addition to the repertoire. Turnips, swedes or mangelworzels, were the natural choice until pumpkins became readily available. Turnip heads are less colourful and much more difficult to hollow out, and although once common have been superceded by the big orange pumpkins that appear in garden centres and supermarkets in their hundreds in October. But there’s a lot more to pumpkins than this brief moment of ritual glory.

Pumpkins are native to the Americas, and a type of pumpkin seed that can be dated to around 6,000 BC has been found in Mexico. The word pumpkin derives from the Greek word pepon, meaning ‘large melon’, and whereas pumpkins do belong to the same family as melons, cucumbers, and marrows, unlike them they mature in the autumn and are often referred to as winter squashes. Although in Britain we’re relatively new to using squash as a vegetable, in many other parts of the world winter squash, such as butternut squash, has been a highly prized food source for thousands of years. It has the tremendous advantage that until opened it will keep for several months. Before the advent of fridges and freezers this was a very valuable asset.

For culinary use, pumpkin flesh is very versatile, largely because it doesn’t have very distinctive qualities of its own (it contains 92% water) and so can form the basis of sweet or savoury dishes. To make traditional pumpkin pie, spices, eggs, sugar and usually cream are added and for savoury dishes, herbs and sauces are used to add flavour to an otherwise rather bland vegetable. Raw pumpkin provides fibre, is an excellent source of vitamin A and provitamin A, and contains a moderate amount of vitamin C, but has no significant content of other nutrients. Perhaps this lack of individual character explains why most of us discard the centre of our Halloween carving, and, after all, the contents of a large pumpkin would make an overwhelming amount of pumpkin pie. If you happen to be one of those for whom autumn isn’t autumn without a helping of this traditional pudding, you can always take the easy route and buy a can of pre-prepared pumpkin puree to make your dessert.

The seeds of the pumpkin, however, are highly nutritious – and tasty! They’re flat, light green, and about 1cm long and can be bought with or without their white husk, either raw or roasted, to eat as a snack. They are often sold as pepitas and when hulled they make a useful addition to salads or they can be incorporated into bread. Pumpkin seeds are a good source of protein, magnesium, copper and zinc and for centuries have been prized for their food value wherever in the world winter squashes have been grown. Today China is the chief supplier and pepitas are widely available in health food stores and supermarkets all year round.

You may want to have a go at growing your own pumpkins – probably only practicable if you have a large garden or an allotment. They’re gross feeders and need rich soil, and regular doses of fertilizer. Pumpkins are also heavy drinkers. You don’t get to be that big and consist of 92% water without having a prodigious thirst, and the giant varieties can take up a lot of space – up to twenty square feet per plant. They’re also frost sensitive and need from 75 to 100 frost free days to mature. To produce good quality, healthy pumpkins you need to give them lots of TLC, and as commercially produced ones are so readily and cheaply available it’s probably not worth it, apart from the tremendous buzz of growing your own. If you’re a fan of weird shaped vegetables, though, then there is an advantage to tending your own pumpkin patch. You can apparently persuade a young growing pumpkin to adopt a controlled form by carefully placing a cage-like mould around it that you cut off when it’s fully grown. Currently, limited quantities of square ones have been successfully produced commercially.

One man in the north of England, however, has made a business out of devoting his allotment to growing pumpkins, which he then turns into intricate carvings. As well as making traditional spooky Halloween lanterns, he expertly produces very recognizable representations of animals, fictional characters and celebrity faces and he’ll even sell you a kit to have a go yourself!

Celebration of Halloween has become very popular over the last thirty years or so, which is reflected in the widespread sale every autumn of all things spooky. Not just witches hats, glow-in-the-dark ghoulish masks, vampire teeth and fancy dress, but all manner of scary house decorations involving spiders, cobwebs and skulls, as well as Halloween themed confectionery and what are described as “gross” recipes to make your own seasonal party fare. Sales of pumpkins have rocketed too.

Forty years ago a few vegetable farmers were growing a small number of pumpkins alongside their other crops. Now pumpkins are big business and in some cases have taken over as the main produce. Specialist British pumpkin farmers have developed their expertise in growing what can be a tricky crop in this country and today millions of pumpkins are grown annually in the UK. Some growers go mainly for size, and of course there are giant pumpkin competitions – with weights approaching 1 tonne being recorded. Commercial producers aim for a more practical maximum size of around 6kg for Halloween and also grow much smaller, thicker fleshed varieties for culinary use. On a smaller scale, many farm shops also grow their own pumpkins for sale.

Although it’s only in the last thirty years or so that pumpkins have been widely available in Europe, these big bright orange vegetables have captured children’s imaginations for centuries, even if most of them had never seen a real one. This pumpkin awareness is probably largely thanks to a Frenchman, Charles Perrault, who, in 1697 wrote down folk stories that had previously only been retold orally. Perrault was the author of many of our familiar fairy tales, and it was he who introduced the fairy godmother, the glass slippers and the pumpkin into the Cinderella story. He was, as you might guess, the son of a wealthy family, because it’s doubtful if in 17th century France a poor girl would be able, as instructed by her fairy godmother, to go and pick a golden pumpkin from her garden to be transformed into a coach, but it’s an enchanting image.

Pumpkins have a more modern involvement in fairy stories, or should that be wizard stories? A popular beverage at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is apparently pumpkin juice, which is consumed at breakfast, lunch and pretty much any occasion. So next year, when you buy a pumpkin to carve into an evil face to frighten the neighbours on Halloween, you might, instead of throwing the pumpkin pulp onto the compost heap, consider joining the Harry Potter set and make it into juice.

Or maybe not. Just as it’s necessary to add cloves, cinnamon and ginger to spice up your pumpkin pie to make it tasty, you’ll have to put a few extras in your pumpkin juice to give it flavour. Official Harry Potter pumpkin juice, which is supplied in bottles with orange pumpkin-shaped caps, is available from the Universal Orlando Merchandise store. The ingredients are listed as follows:

Water, apple juice concentrate, pumpkin puree, apricot puree, sugar, natural and artificial flavours, citric acid, acesulfame potassium, sodium benzoate.

Not just pumpkin then?

We British have embraced all thing pumpkin with enthusiasm, and they’re a colourful and fun addition to our culture, but at a practical level, maybe just stick to the carving, and leave it at that?

Article first appeared in the Four Shire Magazine – November 2016