Last week, you could hear the deer rutting in the twilight; in Friday’s twilight, our piece of valley echoed to the hollow toll of the post driver, piling chestnut stakes through the vineyard. The Last Post rang out, then silence: as if sounding in the Pumpkin Hour.
For this week around Hallowe’en, the pumpkin attains the too-rare status of nationally celebrated vegetable icon. For true veg lovers, this is a double-edged carving knife: of those hundreds of thousands of Jack-O-Lanterns that will be chiseled out for Bewitching Night, most will pass to the other side without being first consumed by human beings. Those of us that do cook our grinning idols come All Saints will know that they may make good soupers, but have none of the versatility, flavour, texture or sweetness of a fine winter squash.
Our compromise position at Hawkwood is to grow “Uchiki Kuri”, a good keeper with a rich honey taste and a dense, melting sweet potato texture; but big enough and orange enough to stand guard by the window without inviting ridicule from neighbours and zombies. That’s what might happen if you employed our green-skinned, chestnut-nectared “Buttercup”, or the “Sweet Dumpling”, which look and cook up like a three-way cross between sweetcorn, round courgettes and, yes indeed, dumplings. Squash fans (let’s call them “Squashers” to differentiate them from supporters of indoor racquet sports) will enjoy these Vit B rich carb bombs for what they are, deep into the dark times, but they are decidedly not the heroes of the Pumpkin Hour.
The stipulation that vegetable lanterns must be watery, amber and as big as footballs is, though, a relatively recent, transatlantic ruling. Originally, as reported in last week’s Local Food News (OrganicLea’s exclusive journal) , the Celtic festival of Samhain, festival of remembrance, was marked by, amongst other peculiar practices, the turning of turnips and Swedes into glowing skulls, to denote the presence of ancestors. The tradition was taken to the Americas by Irish and Scottish migrants and refugees, and adapted to the indigenous Cucurbits which, let’s face it, provide a bolder medium for scary sculpting. Then they came back to haunt us.
If it’s hard to imagine a world in which Swedes and turnips replace squash, try imagining a world in which they replace potatotes as the chief staple vegetable. Yet this world was Blighty before the “New World”. Furthermore, turnip production was a staple job, as immortalized in the traditional Somerset folk song: “And zum delights in haymakin’ and a vew be vond of mowin’/ But of all the jobs that I like best, gi’e ae the turnit hoeing”.
So far from fashion has turnips’ fall been, that they are now not far off being lumped with the (brilliant but misunderstood) likes of Kohl Rabi and Jerusalem Artichokes in the “novel vegetable” ghetto.
At Hawkwood, we try to keep the turnip lamps burning, though the heavy clay is a mischief for root crops. In the last few days Jonny and Mary have returned from the glasshouse with a bounty of Turnip Tops. Latterly rebranded “Namenia” to suit modern sensibilities, Turnip Tops – leaves of Brassica rapa subsp. rapa – is what they are. In autumn and winter, they – alongside endive, chard, Bulls Blood, miners lettuce – provide that vital mildness to balance the rising hot and bitter flavours of our winter salad leaves. That mildness carries an unusual flavour that most people appreciate but find hard to describe: best described, I find, as, “turnipey”.
The salad has slipped through the late summer gap, and we now have good dense stands, inside and out, red and green and going home, that should see us, and all of our kin, ‘til Christmas.
So right now, we’re all about salad and squash. Happy All Hallows: The Pumpkin Hour; Time of the Turnip.