Guest Post for Manna by Esme McAvoy
I bought it on a whim. I meant to buy olives but emerged from Kentish town's impressive deli, Phoenicia, the proud owner of a rather striking white and British racing green coloured winter squash instead. With its perfectly scalloped form, patterned skin artistically marbled and the way it sat proud - majestic almost - on my palm, it wooed its way into my shopping basket. Back home, after admiring it from all angles, I couldn’t bring myself to eat it right away and so sat it on the mantelpiece, a sort of ornamental reminder of nature’s perfection.
“If you like squashes, you should go visit the pumpkin man,” suggests Roger intriguingly, when I’m next working at manna. Laying the tables, I start imagining a rotund, rosy-cheeked character of munchkin proportions – an Enid Blyton storybook sort. In fact, ‘the pumpkin man’ turns out to be Greg Klaes, originally from Detroit, a teacher turned organic farmer who grows all kinds of different squashes – but definitely no humdrum butternut - on his five-acre organic farm in the Oxfordshire countryside. In squash season, between September and December, he delivers batches of his colourful pumpkins and squashes to organic shops, pubs and restaurants across London - including manna.
I take up Roger’s suggestion and, after arranging a meet up with Greg, I hop on a train from London Marylebone to rural Banbury for a tour of the family's organic pumpkin HQ and home, Forge Farm. Pulling into the farm, every trunk of the tree-lined entrance has a garland of ageing orange and green squashes around it, left there to feed the soil.
The pumpkins and squashes are harvested in late September so I arrive to find them already picked and looking rather comfy, bedded down in hay in a polytunnel to keep them out of the frost. Carefully stored like this, they can last for around six months, though, after delivering three tonnes in Halloween week and thanksgiving round the corner with its requisite pumpkin pie, Forge Farm's pumpkins and squash are likely to be all snapped up by Christmas.
The variety and colours are impressive – as are their fanciful names. A stash of squashes in one corner, some the shape of giant comice pears and all with skin the palest hue of wispy grey-blue, are ‘blue Hubbards’. Smaller versions, the shape of oversized Christmas baubles, are known as ‘blue ballets’. Greg points out the ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Wee be little’ varieties - miniature ‘munchkin’ squashes the size of cooking apples. Bright orange and perfectly formed, the Cinderellas are a French heirloom variety and resemble a miniature, flattened version of the fairytale pumpkin carriage that takes a scrubbed-up Cinders to the ball. “The tinies are popular with chefs,” says Greg, “as they are each a perfect individual portion, that can be roasted whole and stuffed with risotto."
Depending on the variety, the flesh ranges from pale yellow to the vibrant dark orange of a sweet potato. The skin colours run from deepest marrow green and burnt oranges to primrose yellow and an ethereal blue-grey. The difference between a pumpkin and a winter squash? Not a lot. From the same family and often hybrids, 'pumpkin’ typically refers only to the conventional round orange Halloween carving variety, with its thick woody stem. Squash, meanwhile, is something of a catchall term for the rest. Confusingly perhaps, the flavoursome, denser flesh of most squash means it is often used over pumpkin in the thanksgiving pumpkin pie.
Squash and pumpkins originate from the Americas. Greg explains that in Native American culture they are considered one of the ‘three sisters’ along with corn and beans that work together as ‘companion crops’ to sustain the fertility of the soil. The corn grows tall, offering a climbing stalk for the beans that ‘fix’ nitrogen in the soil, while the low leaves of the squash plant offer shade for the corn’s shallow roots.
Greg has ‘baby bears’, (smaller versions of the traditional orange Halloween pumpkin), ‘red kuris’ (a small, pear-shaped squash with sunset red-orange skin and sweet flesh), and then I spot the very same white and British racing green patterned squash I’d put on my mantelpiece. Turns out it’s a carnival squash and, yes, mine is one of Greg’s.
I loved the mighty scalloped ‘Queensland blue’ that sometimes grows particularly flat on top and then curves in sharply to create a shape known as the ‘king’s crown’, before not quite meeting on the underside, leaving their bottoms protruding rather cheekily. There are deep green ‘Hokkaido’s’ – the Japanese word for squash - ‘marinas’ and ‘sweet dumplings’. The ‘naked seed’ pumpkin is a delight. Perfectly round, with tigerish stripes of dark green and yellow, its seeds are without the casing found around other squash and pumpkin seeds and so come ready for toasting.
After a cup of coffee, toast with homemade jam and an apple from Greg’s orchard, it’s time to bag up some squash for this week’s delivery. I count out dozen lots of ‘tinies’ for the restaurants and then some handsome ‘Queensland blue’ specimens that, after some hard labour chopping, will find their way into pumpkin pies, soups, stews and risottos, or cleaved into big hunks and roasted alongside spuds and parsnips.
Back at manna, Greg’s squash and pumpkins are cooked up in wintry vegan specials such as pumpkin and butternut squash soups, stews, pastas and tarts – and don’t forget manna’s ever popular ‘bangers’ made with an array of seeds, including pumpkin of course, served on a seasonal mash of root vegetables, and Greg’s hand-delivered Cucurbita pepo! Much fun was had with Greg’s fare on Halloween as always, and last week, there was an extra big delivery to prepare the restaurant’s annual thanksgiving specials of pumpkin soup with rosemary spelt focaccia and vegan pumpkin cheesecake.
Plenty has been restored on the farm since Greg and his family moved there in the early eighties. A derelict threshing barn and outhouses have been carefully converted into a cosy home and office, using reclaimed and recycled materials, while former pastureland is now a series of pumpkin patches. There are apple, pear and plum orchards whose fruits are turned into jam and barrel-aged cider and, as we let out the hens for their daily gander about the farm, Greg points out a group of young, slender trunked oak trees that, incredibly, all started as acorns in his classroom over 20 years ago, when he worked as a science teacher.
But most impressive of all, Greg and his family have restored the section of the Oxford canal that runs past their farm. Old maps showed that the farm was on the edge of the canal basin but it had turned to marshland. Today, after restoring the route, picturesque narrowboats are moored, including those belonging to the family. While the family applied for planning permission to convert the barns into a house some 25 years ago, they began farming the land whilst living onboard their narrowboat, ‘Katharine’.
There’s just time for a sneaky afternoon glass of cider that Greg has ageing in a former whisky barrel, before I head back to London, laden with an assortment of Hubbards, naked seeds and tinies. Oh, and plenty more cider, ready for mulling. Season’s feastings.