As many fresh produce buyers know, Halloween takes up a much larger slice of the British social calendar than it did a decade ago. Perhaps its rising popularity can be attributed to North America’s cultural charm steadily diffusing across the UK like an intoxicating spell. Given the way the pumpkin’s fiery-orange hue both brightens up the produce aisles and illuminates our homes, it’s easy to see why this colourful cucurbit is appealing to both retailers and consumers. However, an autumnal North American ritual yet to fully bewitch the Brits is actually eating pumpkin. Produce Business UK examines whether or not there’s room for a bit of ghoulish gastronomy in this creepy category
Fields of orange
Steve Whitworth, of Wisbech, Cambridgeshire-based Oakley Farms, which produces some 3 million pumpkins a year for its supermarket customers, estimates that a whopping 12 million pumpkins are now grown in the UK annually. “As Halloween has gained in popularity we have seen demand grow year-on-year – especially within the main retailers,” he says.
Given the sheer number of pumpkins that are rolling into the supermarkets like bright orange basketballs, it’s likely that the UK’s jack o’lantern-making skills are now rivalling those of America’s best.
Yet despite the growing interest, Whitworth reckons that, whilst there are about 15 culinary pumpkin varieties (those that are bred for cooking rather than carving), just 3% of the UK’s production is geared specifically towards cooking varieties.
Meanwhile, the flesh of many millions of carving pumpkins most likely goes to waste even though the government is actively encouraging people to reduce food waste. This flesh is also edible and nutritious because pumpkins are high in fibre and beta-carotene (which the body converts into vitamin A) and their seeds are full of protein, iron, and the B vitamins.
Grower Stuart Gibson of KJ Curson Growers, another pumpkin producer based in Wisbech, believes that part of the problem is the work involved in actually supplying cooking pumpkins.
He explains: “I think the biggest growth has been in [the growing and supplying of] various types of squash, because they are available in the UK pretty much all year round, whereas pumpkins are available during such a small window.”
Fellow producer Jonathan Smales of Lyburn Farm in Salisbury (Wiltshire) echoes Gibson’s thoughts. He says: “We grow an organic culinary requirement for Waitrose via Barfoots of Botley named Baby Bear and it weighs on average about 1kg. It’s the only one we do and it’s not too popular because squash tastes so much better. Pumpkins are bred for Halloween, not as cooking varieties. You can get some of the flesh and mix tonnes of sugar with it but at the end of the day it’s not at the top of my culinary list. We make pumpkin pie at home but we buy pumpkin pie concentrate and it’s an American product. It’s just a ready-made pumpkin puree.”
A monster offer
It’s as noticeable as a full moon against a black sky that pumpkins have a long way to go before they become a favourite ingredient. Nevertheless, not everyone in the industry believes the nail is in the coffin when it comes to eating the fruit.
Whitworth from Oakley Farms says: “We are seeing a bit of an increase in edible varieties of cucurbits, including butternut squash and pumpkins. Twenty-odd years ago edibles were sought after, then they weren’t, and now they are coming back in vogue again but it probably ties in with seasonal squash and butternut squash sales.
“There’s a realisation that these [culinary] varieties have flavours. When you buy a larger pumpkin for carving it does not have the same amount of taste as some of these smaller [culinary] varieties like Munchkin, for example, which is really a little, yellowy-orange variety that we grow for Tesco and Sainsbury’s. If you go into Tesco and Sainsbury’s stores they actually have an edible offer – they are marketing them as culinary or edible.”
Renowned pumpkin grower Paul Southall of D Southall & Sons in Worcestershire also believes the interest in culinary pumpkin varieties has stepped up along with the seasonal availability of squashes and pumpkins.
He says: “My impression is it’s something that’s building up. There’s now good interest in edible pumpkins, and over a reasonable period from September/early October until post-November. I think the whole pumpkin thing is coming together – along with the “monsters” [extra large-sized pumpkins], squash, Halloween… you’d hope that the edible side is part of it all.”
Indeed, a representative for Tesco confirms the supermarket is this year stocking the culinary Munchkin pumpkin as part of its wider seasonal offer. “We’re continuing to sell our culinary pumpkins, following a disappointing 2014 season caused by poor quality crop,” says the spokesperson.
“We [Tesco] will sell niche varieties including Munchkin, Red Devils, White Ghosts and our new addition of Monster pumpkins, which give our customers the choice of some interesting alternatives to the traditional pumpkin to really enhance their Halloween displays.”
Vamping up the category
As part of its support for the Love Food Hate Waste drive, Tesco last year published some useful recipes on its website to encourage consumers to use up their pumpkin flesh after carving. On their websites, Tesco, and other major multiples such as Waitrose and Sainsbury’s, have also helpfully published pumpkin recipes; including soups, salads, pasta dishes, curries, cakes, muffins and pies. But are these online resources enough to brew up public interest on a monster-sized scale?
As Charlotte Wheeler, customer services manager for Surrey-based vegetable breeder Tozer Seeds, observes: “There’s no one getting that excited about pumpkin pie. But the market for culinary pumpkins has got potential to grow because it’s so small.
“We [Tozer Seeds] do not really breed them at all but if some celebrity chef decided to make it fashionable… we just need to get Jamie Oliver excited about them, for example. But I cannot see it happening when we have such beautiful squashes – and visually, they can look spectacular.”
Wheeler does point out, however, that Tozer Seeds is calculating the Brix readings of its pumpkins this year. She explains: “We did it on all of our squash varieties last year and we are doing on our pumpkins just as a comparison – if people do want an eating variety.” Oakley Farms grower Whitworth explains that, whilst there is an Outdoor Cucurbit Growers Association, the group focuses on variety trials for pumpkins, rather than promotional campaigns. He says: “There’s always more work to do but who is going to fund it? There’s got to be a level of funding involved and that’s got to come from somewhere. We need a celebrity chef – someone doing something with pumpkins.”
Pumpkin grower Southall agrees that the edible side of pumpkins “should be pushed”. “You have to try and make a point,” he adds. Fortunately, as Halloween nears, some retailers are starting to promote these amber globes.
UK supermarket Morrisons, for instance, recently posted on Twitter a link to a recipe on its website for warm pumpkin, red onion and bacon salad. As the ingredients for this enticing dish includes “one small pumpkin, or 675g of leftover uncooked pumpkin”, the multiple is resourcefully encouraging people to use up leftover pumpkin flesh.
Moreover, waste charity WRAP‘s Love Food Hate Waste campaign has also taken to Twitter – using the social media site to promote the fact that “there are so many ways to cook a pumpkin”. Included in its tweet is a link to a recipe for roast pumpkin lasagne.
Such media activity is bound to enchant consumers. Perhaps then the key to growing the pumpkin category is for the fresh produce industry to lend more support by making the most of all forms of communication – including social media platforms like Twitter, endorsement from chefs and, as Wheeler suggests, in-store recipe cards that run alongside promotions during the Halloween season.