Ahead of her upcoming demo, Paula McIntyre talks about her life-long love of cucumbers
My late grandmother was a prolific gardener and used to grow cucumbers in her greenhouse. I would help her plant the seeds, pressing them into compost-filled terracotta pots with my grubby fingers, and watched their progress with the keen anticipation only a five-year-old can have.
As they flourished, the smell from their leaves and sweet flowers would fill the hot, steamy, glass-enclosed air. The scene of the vines taking over, small cylinders of fruit appearing, was for me, at that time, like something from Day of the Triffids. When they were ripe and fully grown, these treasured, home grown luxuries would have graced a salad, with the tomatoes from another green house, lettuce and Sharp’s Express potatoes from my grandfather’s allocated area in the garden. As it was the seventies, the whole delicious ensemble was then doused with a healthy dollop of salad cream.
Now it seems every good chef worth their salt has a polytunnel and when I step inside, the smell and sight transports me back. As well as the traditional English cucumber I helped to plant as a child, these are now supplemented with a more exotic array: the snake-like Armenian variety is commonplace, as are the slim, dark green Japanese or ‘kyuri’ ones. Lemon cucumbers, the size of a cricket ball, round and mottled yellow, have a pearly white flesh and citrus hint. Small, squat kirbys are ideal for pickling. The Persian type is smaller, pricklier on the outside and intensely flavoured. There’s even a burpless version, which can only be a good thing.
Texture, taste and theatricality
Whereas granny would have sliced the cucumber and no more, it seems there’s no end to the possibilities for this common gourd—compressed in a vac-pac bag and then poached, pickled, salted or charred are all de rigueur treatments now. Cucumber is comprised mainly of water, so these methods make sense and add texture, taste and a bit of theatricality.
When I was a young student chef in the eighties, the local lady of the manor employed me to do a dinner party. I was 19 but had the sense to do a cold starter. I associated the aristocracy with carefully crafted cucumber sandwiches, so thought they’d appreciate their inclusion on the menu. A cucumber mousse slightly spiced with cumin was duly set in the obligatory dariole mould and served with perfectly turned cucumber barrels.
Looking back, the waste from turning the vegetables was phenomenal—I must have used six cucumbers for 12 people. Now there’s appreciation, across the board, for cooks to use every part of the vegetable. Even the canary yellow star-shaped flowers from the plant create a zippy, tangy burst on the plate and add a splash of colour.
My disco-era cucumber mousse used a classic set cream, but I updated it recently using good local yoghurt, agar instead of gelatine, and infused it with lovage which added a fresh sultry, spicy element, rather cumin from a jar. And there wasn’t a turned cucumber in sight!
If you’re lucky enough to grow your own, preserving is vital. Not only does it eliminate waste, it adds value and different facets to the original. A friend of mine grows the kirby variety— I cut them in quarters lengthwise and pickle in a solution of equal parts water, vinegar and sugar. Aromatics like fennel seeds, chilli, all manner of spices and onions are added whimsically, depending on my mood.
I’ve recently experimented with fermentation where the cucumbers are coarsely grated, mixed with a tablespoon of salt per kilo of flesh, and the aforementioned aromatics, and allowed to sit for a day until they fizz. They are then packed into kilner jars and stored in the fridge. This isn’t a taste you’ll buy in any supermarket. Like the odd-shaped fruits themselves, it’s unique—and that’s what makes them so special.
Join Paula for tips, tastings and recipes on Friday 4th August in the Market Hall, 12:30-2pm