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The Malabar Gourd

The Malabar Gourd (Cucurbita ficifolia) is a fascinating rampant, spreading vine of the Cucumber family, which trails for many yards, for training up fences, over pergolas or left to range across the ground. It's also known as the Fig Leaved Gourd, after its attractive foliage. The fruits are brightly coloured and mottled, and are quite huge. They can be eaten very small like courgettes, but their real purpose is for them to be left to ripen their hard skins and, using the recipes below, turned into the dessert Chilacayote, as they are in their native South America, or Cheveaux d'Ange.

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The Malabar Gourd (Cucurbita ficifolia)

They're very easy to grow. Seed is sown individually in pots in late May / early June. Although it's a huge plant, it gets big very quickly and there is no benefit -- and we believe this applies to any of the squashes -- in sowing them too early at a time of year when the soil can often be too cold for them to planted out and there is usually still a risk of frost. Allow plenty of room when planting them out. They can run up to 18 feet, but that doesn't mean that they need to be given that much space as they find their own way beyond their allotted bounds in any case, even up into neighbouring trees. They love lots of water, which is more easily retained if they're heavily mulched with organic matter, and a thick material like cardboard or old carpet on top of that keeps the weeds down through the whole season. Otherwise, they can be left to their own devices. The fruits are only properly ripe if they are left to run their full course on the vines until they are cut down by frost. The frost will not harm the fruits. Their skin is especially hard, and it may be necessary to tackle them with a hacksaw, or break them open with an axe. We have kept fruits for over three years, after which time the contents dessicate and rattle around inside.

Given half a chance they are perennial, and the rootstock of Malabar Gourd is sometimes used for grafting other members of the family onto, being particularly resistant to the soil borne diseases which can affect other related crops.

Although Cucurbita ficifolia is fun and easy to grow, you can be left with lots of fine fruits and no recipes for using them. Here are two recipes for the best-known products; remember, it is also possible to eat the immature fruits, prepared as you would courgettes.

Candied Chilacayote

We lost the recipe we had orginally. Here is a version that was sent by e-mail. We haven't tried it ourselves, but it resembles the one we lost, with the exception of the lime, which we presume helps to soften the flesh. The recipe is as we received it, with our comments in italics. Please let us know how you get on with it.

  • 4-6 pounds of diced chilacayote
  • 1 tablespoon of lime
  • 3 1/2 pounds sugar
  • 500 grams brown sugar (not raw sugar)
  • 2 cups water (presumably 8 fl oz cups, as this is from America)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cinnamon sticks

Beat (not sure what this means: pound the skin to loosen the flesh and rind?), peel and dice the chilacayote. Then place it in a large bowl, add the lime and cover with water. Leave it overnight. The following day, wash and squeeze it gently. Place sugar, cinnamon, water and salt in a saucepan and bring to the boil, remove any scum that rises to the top. Add the chilacayote and keep at a gently boil until it looks transparent and the syrup is sticky. It takes around 6 hours. Serve cold. It is usually served without syrup.

Cheveaux d'Ange

Another celebrated way of using Malabar Gourd is in a sweetmeat called Cheveaux d'Ange. There are various recipes floating around including the one that is more like a flavoured honey and another that uses sugar. To prepare, cut the flesh into small cubes and simmer them in boiling salted water for about an hour. When they are tender, pour off the water and refresh the cubes with plenty of cold water. Drain them when cold, and place in a large bowl. Now stir them about with a fork, separating the flesh into strands rather like spaghetti squash. (This can now be mixed with mashed potato and baked in an oven with egg and cheese topping.) For the flavoured honey, mix the flesh with its own weight in honey (acacia for preference) and leave for a day. Then simmer gently for about half an hour, until it is golden in colour, and bottle. "This is the famous Cheveaux d'Ange, once highly esteemed in Paris."

Weigh a good quantity of the flesh before shredding it with a food processor and put it in a bowl with its own weight in sugar. Leave it for an hour, to draw out the juices. Put flesh, sugar and juice in a pan and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the shredded pumpkin is very soft. Add 5 to 15 ml of orange blossom water for each 500 gram of pumpkin. Serve sprinkled with chopped pistachio nuts and double cream or mascarpone.

From Future Foods is a small independent mail order supplier specialising in rare and unusual edible plants.

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