Saturday, 24 January 2009

In Praise of Pumpkins I

If one vegetable sums up how far I've come in my tastes, it's the pumpkin. The only thing I'd've done with one until quite recently is carve it - although since Hallowe'en was a fairly minor affair when and where I grew up, I don't remember even doing that, until my sister left home and started hosting spooky parties every year.

In fact, even now, most of my friends don't eat pumpkin, even if they bought it for carving; one or two of the more adventurous might make soup with the flesh of a Jack O'lantern. It's perhaps ironic that butternut squash, which does not grow reliably in the British climate, is much more pupular - but then imported butternuts are available all year round in supermakets here, and are quite cheap despite all those food miles. I like butternut squash, and it could be substituted into any of the recipes in part II, but probably not the 'beer' below. The same holds for other winter squashes - last autumn I got blue kabocha and adorable acorn squashes in Morrisons, and a reasonable variety are available in markets and ethnic shops in London (and doubtless eslewhere) when in season (in fact, there is a fabulous grocer in Penge - nominally Turkish, I believe - that sells the large, blue-green-skinned kabochas pretty much year-round). Inside, they are all similar, but I love the variety of shapes and colours - they are very decorative, and will keep well at room temperature, preferably cooler, for many weeks - a great seasonal alternative to flowers, in my opinion.

The one type that is not the same is the 'carving pumpkin', bright orange, ribbed, and usually larger than 'culinary' pumpkins, and ubiquitous for the last couple of weeks of October. The flesh is pale, far more watery, and quite fibrous. The other types, for eating, tend to have denser, smoother, more richly-coloured flesh with much more flavour. I didn't know this last year, but I bought a fair few from October onwards, and learned the difference. That's why I chose to make pumpkin 'ale', because the flesh of the larger carving pumpkins, while plentiful, didn't warrant any serious culinary use. I found an old Welsh recipe, whereby a pumpkin is opened and hollowed-out as if to carve, then filled with sugar, which dissolves the flesh, and topped-up when necessary. The sugar ferments, and produces a weak, sweet, probably quite bland alcoholic beverage. I didn't want to go to the trouble, and I suspect this recipe would make quite a mess as the skin goes soft, although my friend's sister, whose Hallowe'en party I attended last year, had followed a similar route in making spiced, sweetened pumpkin rum. I chose the easier, but still quite messy, method of cubing the flesh, puréeing it, and straining over white sugar. I added wine yeast, the juice of a lemon and an orange (as I originally intended to make wine, I wanted good acid balance), and instead of hops, the fragrant astrigency of bay leaves and juniper berries.

As an aside, the defining characteristic of a country beer, as opposed to a country wine, seems to be the speed of fermentation. [Although a further distinction is often the type of sugar used - brown, muscovado, or molasses, for beers, castor sugar for wines - this is not always the case, and either may be made from any kind of fruit, vegetable, or herb, with or without aromatic herbal additions.] I came to this conclusion after wading through a good couple of hundred recipes, looking for inspiration, and wondering about the prevailing nomenclature. A wine is fermented slowly, at a fairly low temperature, for weeks or months, until it has 'worked itself out' (i.e., the yeast has fermented as much sugar into ethanol as it can); a beer is fermented for a few days to a couple of weeks, and may thereby retain natural effervescence, and this is done at a higher temperature in order to attain low to moderate alcohol levels. Or at least, that's my interpretation - the logical conclusion is that there is a continuum of home-brews, and whether you call it a beer or a wine (or an ale, for that matter), is entirely up to you (I should point out that shop-bought drinks are usually much easier to define).

I was anxious to mimic the sensation of a light beer with my improvisation here, so I added the bay and juniper as they share certain aromatic compounds with hops (myrcene, pinene); I also kept the sugar fairly low, to prevent the mixture being too sickly; I wanted it to be ready in a few days, so I could take some to the Hallowe'en party. I fermented it at a high temperature, probably around 25-30°C, leaving the demijohn by a fire, turning occasionally. The final experiment was with effervescence - a success, despite my reservations. I decanted the beer into stoneware bottles, stoppered with wired-down corks (normal glass bottles might have exploded). The result was a light gold, cloudy, fizzy, fragrant, somewhat astringent brew, refreshing if a little odd. I reckon I could get used to it. In any case, it demonstrated the versatility of the pumpkin - if there is a glut next autumn (I intend to grow my own this year), I will certainly revisit and refine the idea...

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