Finally our two weeks of annual leave has started. It hasn’t come a moment too soon as we’re shattered from rushing around at work and rushing around at home. We’ll be going away to Mauritius for a week, but are also enjoying spending some time in London. And a very nice way to start our break was a trip to Down House in Kent, which is where Charles Darwin lived with his family.
We’ve wanted to go there for ages – especially as members of English Heritage we get in for free – and finally managed to book in a date to go there with Andrew’s aunt Kate and uncle Richard, and (great) aunt Betty. That date was yesterday, and so we headed off to deepest, darkest Kent (well, not really – just Eltham) to pick up auntie Betty, and then on to Downe to visit the house.
So what, might you ask, does this have to do with food? Well, in fact, Down House still sells produce grown in the greenhouse and gardens. Many varieties of fruit and vegetables descend from those originally planted by Darwin and his wife Emma (herself from the Wedgewood pottery dynasty), and I ended up buying two odd looking vegetables to write about on this dear old blog.
How amusing for me and fascinating for my readers, I thought, to discover what these veggies actually were (apparently from the squash and cucumber families) and then cook something delicious with them to form my next blog post.
Well, the experience was not amusing for me, and I very much doubt it will be fascinating for you to hear my cookery woes, but let this be a lesson learnt that you should not buy weird looking vegetables just because they look funny. Because you might well discover that they taste vile.
I had correctly identified the squash as a squash in the Down House coffee shop, and for a pound I thought it was worth a punt to buy and try and cook at home. As you can see from the picture, it’s a lovely shape and colour, and when I googled it I discovered it was called a custard squash. Apparently they taste best when the size of a fist, so this one was a lot bigger than ideal, and I couldn’t really find any recipes which appealed to me, so in the end I decided to roast wedges of it like I would butternut squash, and sweat the rest down with garlic and olive oil to copy a recipe usually made with courgettes.
Unmitigated disasters, the pair of them.
Firstly I discovered that butternut squash is not the most indestructable of vegetables – custard squash is. The thick, hard skin was almost impossible to cut through, and I nearly lost my fingers in the process of slicing the wedges. However, I have been through similar experiences with butternut squash, so I wasn’t completely put off, and coated the wedges in olive oil and garlic salt before baking them in the oven.
Secondly I realised you cannot peel a custard squash with a vegetable peeler. The custard squash does not have skin … it has something akin to the shell of an armadillo. So I risked losing fingers again and sliced (hacked) the rest of the squash into pieces and then sawed the skin off with a serrated knife. I then sliced the small amount of actual flesh which was left and sauteed it over a very low heat for at least 40 minutes with garlic and olive oil.
The roasted wedges were ready first. I took them out of the oven, took a quick picture (they looked quite good) and then bit into one. In fairness, the flesh is not disgusting … mainly because it tastes of nothing … but the skin had turned into hard leather, and looked like an old man’s toenails. Truly horrible. If you were really starving I suppose you could scoop the flesh from the skin with your teeth and ‘enjoy’ the tasteless, fibrous flesh, but I would recommend you don’t bother and stick them in the bin instead.
Next was the stewed squash. Yuck. Once again fibrous (I suppose if you had digestive issues it would get you moving), and the only flavour I had managed to create with the copious quantities of garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper was one of bitterness. That also went into the bin after a quick pose for a photo.
I am too scared to try the cucumber – I’ll give that a go tomorrow after I have recovered from today’s kitchen disasters.
So what did I learnt from this experience? Well, clearly the custard squash is still with us because no one in their right mind would bother eating it. It has evolved to weather a nuclear winter, and resists even the sharpest of knives. And when someone like me is stupid enough to risk life and limb to attempt to eat it, it tastes so revolting that the person will never make the same mistake twice, and therefore the custard squash will live on forever more.
So if you go to Down House (and I really recommend you do) then don’t buy any of their home-grown produce. Instead but a copy of On the Origin of Species and enjoy educating your brain instead of your palette. Or drive 10 minutes down the road to the Aperfield Inn in Westerham and eat the world’s largest chocolate eclair.