In his regular food column for the Times, Bruce McMichael celebrates the history and versatility of the humble pumpkin and explains why it, along with its culinary cousin the squash, should take centre stage on your table on October 31
Misty mornings, chilly days and leaves turning into rich oranges and reds announce the arrival of autumn.
The change in the seasons sees our Kentish orchards full of colourful crops, with farms and vegetable plots brimming with ripening pumpkins and squashes. The knobbly squashes and beautifully coloured and shaped pumpkins are now ready for picking and carving for display on your porch in time for Halloween.
Famous for being the vegetable at which Cinderella’s fairy godmother waved her wand to magic up a carriage fit for a princess to get the ball, pumpkins have always had an enchanted feel.
The tradition of carving Halloween lanterns actually originates from Ireland a couple of hundred years ago, although back then they used turnips and potatoes. It was only later, when many Irish people migrated to the USA, home of the pumpkin, that the idea of carving these larger vegetables came about.
A huge variety of pumpkins and squashes are now available to gather at local Kent Pick-Your-Own farms.
Some, like the traditional orange globes, are ideal for carving, while varieties such as Crown Prince and Onion are more suited to eating. Pink, blue, white, green, yellow and multicoloured varieties are available at outlets such as the Groombridge Farmshop (www.groombridgefarmshop.co.uk) and the Tunbridge Wells Farmers’ Market (www.kfma.org.uk).
Pickers can choose whatever size they like – fun-size mini pumpkins the size of tennis balls, or huge beach ball-sized varieties. A pumpkin can weigh up to 20kg or more, so borrowing a wheelbarrow is a wise move.
Prices per pumpkin start at £1, with most pumpkins costing £4 or less. A wheelbarrow-load can cost as little as £20.
Now in its seventh year, PYO Pumpkins at Beluncle Farm is one of the UK’s biggest such farms. A staggering 250,000 pumpkins and squashes have been grown this year, and more than 50,000 pumpkin pickers were expected throughout the October harvesting season.
Verity Batchelor, who helps run the farm, adds: “Families relish the chance to visit a working farm and walk the fields where the pumpkins have grown. It’s become a Halloween tradition for hundreds of local families.
Most spend a few hours here filling up their barrows. We advise people to wear wellies or boots, especially if it’s been wet. Gloves are a good idea, too, as the stalks can be prickly. And strong bags make the pumpkins easier and cleaner to carry to the car and home.”
PLACES TO PICK YOUR OWN PUMPKINS
There are plenty of farmers’ markets and farm shops where you can choose your own. So support your local shops and producers and pick your own pumpkin from a local supplier
Cheesemans Green Lane, Sevington, Ashford, Kent
Just off JCT 10 of M20
Sat Nav use TN25 7HY
Tel 07786 261706
In the last two years, this farm has welcomed thousands of people pulling on their wellies and stomping through the mud in the quest to find the largest or ugliest pumpkin
Beluncle Farm, Stoke Road, Hoo, Rochester, Kent ME3 9LU
Tel 07526 734293
Two fields full of gloriously orange-coloured pumpkins ready for picking
Old Chatham Road
Maidstone, ME14 3BE
Pick your treat from 13 different varieties of pumpkins and squashes planted over 15 acres
Dartford DA2 7HD
Tel 01322 669711
Pick your own pumpkin from the colourful pumpkin patch, or buy one from the farm shop
Pumpkins are available now, but contact the PYO farm or farm shop before you leave home, or check Facebook and website pages for up-to-date information on picking days, opening hours and stock levels