Squash: the gourd, the bad and the ugly...

October is the season for pumpkins and squashes – with festivals celebrating these large and colourful vegetables all over France. Jane Hanks finds out more about the huge variety of species which exist

1 October 2015
By Jane Hanks

There are hundreds of different types of squash, gourds and pumpkins which are eaten, admired and carved into Halloween decorations at this time of year. It is often confusing to know exactly what we are talking about when we use the different terms in both English and French.

The family is the Cucurbitaceae which has one of the highest numbers of species edible to man.

There are several subdivisions such as  cucurbita - including squash, pumpkins, courgettes and gourds, lagenaria - which includes mostly inedible gourds, cucumis, cucum­bers and some melons and citrullus (watermelons).

Different types of pumpkin or squash are given distinctive names in French including citrouille, potiron and potimarron and often even native speakers are not sure of the difference and they are sometimes used interchangeably.

As a result there are both Fêtes du Potiron and Fêtes de la Citrouille across the country at this time of year.

The confusion has been blamed on Walt Disney’s drawings for Cinderella. In Charles Perrault’s version in the 17th century the fairy transformed a citrouille into a carriage but in Walt Disney’s version it is a potiron because Disney drew the type of pumpkin he was familiar with.

The potiron (Cucurbita maxima) is orange to dark green with a slightly flattened shape with vertical grooves and a round stalk while the citrouille (Curcubita pepo) is usually smaller, round or oval, darker orange and with a five sided stalk, traditionally carved for Halloween.

The potimarron (also, confusingly, Cucurbita maxima) is a different species and is small, orange to red and shaped like a water drop.

One of the most well-known pumpkin fairs is the Fête de la Citrouille at the Potager Extraordinaire in La Mothe-Achard, Vendée, which is a garden specialising in unusual plants open to the public and which began with a collection of 250 varieties of  Cucurbitaceae.

The garden’s speciality is its national collection of 60 different types of gourd which are mostly inedible and still used in Africa as cups and bowls.

The annual fair has become famous for holding the only official competition in France to find its biggest pumpkins and other vegetables.

The results are recognised by the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth organisation and are sent off to the US where they are classified in the world and European listings.

The record in France so far is 646.5kg set by Mehdi Daho in 2013 but this is dwarfed by the world record holder which is a mammoth 1054kg set in Switzerland.

However, the French results are highly respected because the entrants only use organic methods.

Baptiste Pierre, the head gardener and botanical expert at the Potager Extraordinaire, says: “The Americans are very interested by our competition because it shows you can grow big specimens without the use of chemicals.

“Our competitors use all sorts of methods but the secret is to give them a huge amount of nutrients.

“The aim is to have fun and create an amusing result but it is also to test different methods of cultivation and perhaps eventually to produce new varieties which will give more and bigger fruit for the consumer, while using organic methods.”

Mehdi Daho is hoping to beat his own record this year.

He told Connexion that it takes a great deal of work to create such huge pumpkins: “I spend hours and hours over the year looking after my giant vegetables. I analyse the soil, enrich it with organic material and seaweed
and make sure the pumpkins have plenty of water.

“There is always a challenge. I’ve had rats to contend with, the skin can split if you haven’t got it just right and this year I had mildew. I started because I was bored with growing traditional veg. I love it because whenever anyone sees one of my giants the first reaction is always a smile. I am proud, too, as I believe I have grown the biggest pumpkin in the world organically.”

Mr Pierre says that, while pumpkins need a lot of space, they are easy to grow if you are not setting out to beat any size records: “They are ideal for a lazy gardener because once you have planted them they need very little care.

“In our region we don’t even have to water them but that depends on the amount of rainfall you have.

“They don’t mind whether the soil is acid or alkaline but they do prosper in a rich soil with plenty of organic material which has been added the previous autumn. You can even throw seeds onto a compost heap where they will flourish.”

Beware of harvesting your own seeds though, as if you have two different varieties they can easily become cross-pollinated and produce a hybrid variety which may or may not be good to eat.

The answer is to buy your seed or pollinate the plants by hand.

Mr Pierre said: “This is easy to do. First identify your male and female flowers. (The male flowers have a rod-shaped stamen in the centre and the female flowers have a round swelling at the base of the petals and multi- segmented stigma. The male flowers appear first.)

“Then just as the female flower opens early in the morning, brush on pollen taken from a male flower which you know is ripe because the powder falls off easily onto the brush.

“Cover the fertilised flower with a plastic bag for 48 hours so that no other pollen can be taken to it by a bee. The fruit that grows will produce non-hybrid seeds for next year’s crop.”

Once harvested, squash are easy to keep due to their thick skins and can be eaten all winter long.

They are becoming increasingly popular and more varieties can be found in the shops. They can be cooked in water or baked in the oven or made into pumpkin pie.

In France they are often used for jam, with one variety used especially for this purpose. Confiture de Pastèque is often proudly handed over as a gift from local people but is not made from the red-fleshed water melon given the same name in French, but a close
relative also called the gigérine, méréville or citre where the flesh cannot be eaten raw but is edible once cooked. It is easy to grow.

Some of the different varieties recommended by the Potager Extraordinaire include Courge Spaghetti, which has a flesh that turns into long ribbons just like spaghetti when it is cooked; Jack be Little, which are miniature pumpkins so small they can fit into the palm of your hand and can be cooked and eaten as well as making attractive decorations; and Big Jumbo Banana, a pink long oval shape which produces a fine flavoured, sweet orange flesh.

 

The Fête de la Citrouille at Potager Extraordinaire, La Mothe-Achard, Vendée is on October 4

(find out more at www.potagerextraordinaire.com) 

Recipe: Confiture de pastèque (made from citre/gigérine)

Ingredients for 4 pots:

  • 1kg pastèque de confiture, also called gigérine or citre (it is oval with skin like a watermelon).
  • 500g granulated sugar
  • 1 small lemon
  • 1 vanilla pod

 

Cube the pastèque de confiture. Put the flesh, sugar, lemon (cut in thin slices) and the vanilla pod (cut into small sticks) into a bowl, stir and leave to soak and soften for 24 hours. Then, put the mixture into a large saucepan and simmer for 20 minutes to half an hour until the pieces of pastèque become transparent.

Make sure the consistency is syrupy by spooning a little on to a cold plate. French jams are runnier than English ones so it is not necessary to test for a set. Put hot jam into sterilised jars.

Recipe courtesy of www.marmiton.org

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