In the midst of the annual pumpkin-spiced-mania of the last month, it’s easy to forget that the fact remains that it is the season for eating all things pumpkin, squash, and gourd — and not just smashed onto your toast at breakfast. Flying in the face of all the questionable/outright insulting lists of “scary” (read: foreign) things to eat this week, read on for some delicious ways to celebrate pumpkin that don’t involve less-than-thinly-veiled cultural fetishism.
Margot Henderson recalls that when she came to London thirty years ago, pumpkins were “thought of more as animal fodder, and not as something to be cooked and eaten in the best restaurants of the land.” Fortunately, however, times change: the increased availability of a broader variety of pumpkins coupled with the emergence of hero-ingredient cooking in London creates a culture in which gourds of all shapes and sizes take centre stage on plates across the capital.
The king of the pumpkins is the Delica, a variety which has found favour with chefs for its dense, sweet flesh of vibrant orange and its subtle nutty flavour — stark contrast to its gnarled, green-grey skin. They start popping up around London restaurants in September, their red wax-capped stems the signature of Oscar Zerbinati. Zerbinati’s farm in Mantua, in the northern Italian region of Lombardy, grows the majority of the Delicas that make their way onto the plates of the city’s diners via Natoora in Chiswick or Sloane Square — where they are also available for public purchase. The Delica is notable for the fact that its flesh remains firm once cooked — the pumpkins are “cured” in temperature-controlled environments after harvest, to concentrate sugars and promote the integrity of their treasured flesh.
Pumpkin, Whey Butter, Kale
“Delicas are quite a remarkable pumpkin,” say Lyle’s, “... their depth of flavour truly marks them out.” Here they’re gently cooked to soften the flesh without excess colouration, before being served with an emulsification of their own juice, butter, and whey. According to the Lyle’s team, the whey adds a complex lactic note that belies the simplicity of the dish — the Delica is topped with raw chestnut slices and variegated kale leaves for a contrasting texture and bitterness.
Quality Chop House
Delica Pumpkin, Seeds, Oats, Balsamic, Truffle
At Quality Chop House, a dish of Delica pumpkin is rooted firmly in the vegetable’s northern Italian origins, served with truffles from neighbouring Emilia-Romagna and an aged balsamic vinegar. The pumpkin is oven-roasted with some dried chilli to accentuate its sweetness, then topped with its own seeds, which are mixed with sunflower and black onion seeds before being toasted in brown butter. Finally, fresh chervil offers an aniseed counterpoint to the treacly pumpkin, the intense balsamic, and the pungent truffle.
Delica Pumpkin, Minestra Nera & Hazelnuts
Aside take a simple approach to the Delica, with an aim to “express the pumpkin’s full potential, without over-complicating things.” First, the cold-pressed juice of a Delica is reduced with lemon, thyme and chilli, before being emulsified with butter to create an aromatic sauce for the pumpkin flesh. Said flesh is pan-roasted in a beurre noisette to golden brown, then served with minestra nera, a type of brassica. The stalks are braised, while the tops are pan-fried to create a crisp garnish. Freshly toasted hazelnuts and a touch of the reserved beurre noisette underline the earthy Autumnal flavours of the dish.
It’s not just about the Delica in London, though, and there are a number of other varieties found closer to home that are becoming equally sought-after.
Margot Henderson loves pumpkin. Growing up in New Zealand, where, as she puts it, “pumpkin soup is almost a national dish”, she recalls the Crown Prince pumpkins her dad would grow atop the compost heap: “amazing, and we just took it all for granted.” The rest of her correspondence continues with the same reverence. Roast pumpkin is served at Rochelle Canteen’s new ICA venue, she says, with barley and wild mushrooms. Alternatively, roast a pumpkin (always leave the skin) with a little salt and pepper and maybe sage, and a splash of oil, “until they have a lovely colour and are soft.” Toss with “lentils and a little radicchio or watercress [and] a little vinaigrette,” or make a simple soup with the addition of just onions, leeks, and garlic. Whichever path you choose heed one key piece of advice: “You need a very sharp knife with some weight behind it. Otherwise you are in for quite a struggle.”
Kabocha & Pickle Salad
At Koya Bar, this time of year is all about the Kabocha squash, a Japanese variety grown by Robin and Ikuko of the inimitable Namayasai. Their squashes are carefully aged before being sent to restaurants. Shuko says: “This is the first dish I put on when Namayasai announce that their Kabocha is ready ... It is such an autumnal dish, the nutty, crunchy, creamy and acidic salad goes so well with the amazingly sweet Kabocha.” In typical Koya Bar style, it’s an incredibly simple dish. A slice of Kabocha is roasted slowly, and served with a salad of pickled carrot and daikon, laced with sesame seeds and oil.
Delicata Pumpkin, Fenugreek, Curry Leaves, Brown Butter, Carrot
At Pidgin, Delicata (not to be confused with Delica, for they are indeed different gourds) pumpkin is sourced directly from Flourish Farm in Cambridgeshire. Pidgin go as far as to delay delivery of the delicatas (delicatae?) in order to ensure they are at peak ripeness. Head Chef Dan Graham describes Delicata as a favourite of his, and here it’s elegantly presented. Curry flavours and the bitterness of Fenugreek are good friends of sweet pumpkin, while the remaining preparations are focussed on balancing flavour and texture. “A crumble and a tuille add texture and crunch,” explains Dan, “whilst the rich, reduced sauce enhances the flavours, and is balanced with acidity.” Mustard leaves and Tahoon cress finish the dish and provide a vibrant counterpoint.
Baked Autumn Pumpkin with Parmesan Cream
The baked Autumn pumpkin at La Fromagerie centres on the Jack Be Little pumpkin variety, and has become an Autumnal menu staple at the restaurant over the past few years. Founder Patricia Michelson explains she first encountered the squash in question in Piedmont one Autumn while visiting the Alba truffle fair, where it was served filled with a Porcini cream and shavings of Alba truffle — “a truly decadent first course.” At La Fromagerie, the dish has been adapted to its current form: baked Jack Be Little pumpkin, filled with a rich Parmesan cream and seasonal mushrooms, and sometimes topped with shavings of truffle in a nod to that Piedmontese decadence.
If you’ve got tips or just delicious photos of exciting gourds across London, tag #eaterlondon in your photos and we’ll feature them on our Instagram.