How does that old advertising slogan go? The future’s bright – the future’s orange. Well, for many enterprising farmers that’s certainly the case, but rather than investing in mobile phones, they’ve found a market in growing pumpkins.
Shops are awash with the brightly coloured crop every autumn in a way that was unthinkable 20 years ago. When I was a lad, the long, misty months between the end of the summer of holidays and the Christmas break were punctuated only by Guy Fawkes Night. But in the 1990s, America’s Halloween traditions began to take off in Britain. Along with spooky outfits and trick or treating, the trend for pumpkin carving really gathered pace.
Of course, there’s nothing new about jack-o’-lanterns – we’ve been carving them from vegetables for centuries – but in recent years the American influence has seen their popularity escalate. According to legend, the custom began with the carving of turnips. When Irish immigrants arrived in the New World, there was a distinct lack of turnips, so instead they used pumpkins.
But there’s more to pumpkins than just a cheap way to make a scary lantern. Brits have developed a taste for them, too. The fleshy ‘insides’ are cropping up in all sorts of imaginative dishes – not just the famous pumpkin pie, but also soup, stew, lasagne, ice cream, pizza and even pate. A few years ago, Matt Baker made pumpkin pate when the Countryfile programme visited Slindon in Sussex. It’s a small community not far from Arundel, but every autumn its annual pumpkin festival is a magnet for thousands of visitors from all over the world. The highlight is an impressive mural made up of hundreds of pumpkins and all sorts of colourful veg.
Slindon’s rival for the title of Britain’s pumpkin capital has to be the Lincolnshire town of Spalding. Already renowned for its bulb production, the area is also home to Europe’s largest commercial pumpkin grower, which produces more than three million for sale in the UK and overseas. Not surprisingly, it’s led to Spalding staging its own pumpkin festival with stalls, entertainment and a parade of carved pumpkins, followed by a firework display.
Now pumpkins might look like vegetables but they’re actually fruit. Technically a type of squash, they belong to the same family of plants as the cucumber. Although they’re about 90 percent water, pumpkins are a great source of potassium, iron and vitamins A, C and E. There are around 500 varieties worldwide in a range of colours including white, blue, and green.
Planted in late spring, the UK pumpkin harvest runs from the beginning of September until the end of October. But in the last two weeks the race is on, because after Halloween, demand disappears quicker than Cinderella’s coach at midnight.
That’s no easy feat, because harvesting them is extremely labour intensive. So while it’s great news for seasonal staff, who can ensure several weeks of work in the fields, the cost of employing pickers (and supermarket demand for high volume at low cost) means a smaller margin for the farmer.
So what should you look for when you choose your pumpkin? Always go for a heavy one without any soft spots or blemishes. Another good tip is to pick one with at least a 5cm (2in) stem. That’s because the shorter the stem, the sooner it will shrivel. But most importantly, enjoy your pumpkin, whether it’s for eating – or scaring the neighbours!