The inside of the fat baby fruit and, below, the seeds. Picture by Pictures by DR A. Thimmaiah.
GARDENING CHRISTMAS came early for me — in the form of a lovely little gift from Penny Weedon.
A keen, self-confessed 'basic’ gardener from St Margaret’s Glade, Upper Ventnor, Penny sent me some seed which I have never grown before but which I will now ensure has a place in my allotment.
I must confess I only have the dimmest glimmer of recollection of hearing about achocha as being a 'lost crop of the Incas’.
Three years ago, Penny’s daughter-in-law sent her some seeds and, aware of her gardening limitations, she knew the gift would have to be pretty self-sufficient — and she was most pleasantly surprised.
"They are very easy to grow and, once established, the slugs and snails leave them alone," she told me.
Her tip is to sow them under cover, much like courgettes, and plant out next to a strong frame, preferably alongside a fence, wall, tree, or a hedge in a sunny spot when the soil and air temperatures begin to warm.
They climb, similar to peas — everywhere — and have leaves similar to convolvulus but differ in that they have a real use.
Penny advised to pick them when the fruit is an inch to an inch-and-a-half long, and remove the seeds if they are brown or black.
Given a reasonable summer, they start producing fruit at the end of August and carry on until the chill of November.
The fruit can be eaten raw, or in stir-fries with other veg or in stews or soups.
They can be used like a green pepper, look like hoglets (baby hedgehogs) and taste similar to an outdoor cucumber.
Fronds at the end of runners can also be eaten, cut off in six-inch lengths and used in stir-fries, salad or in sandwiches — although Penny said the taste was not great.
A trawl through various internet sites revealed varieties, tips, suppliers (among them the Real Seed website) and history of an (until recently) long-forgotten plant — a member of the cucurbit family, originating from South America, where it was first cultivated by the Incas.
The fruits are an odd shape, rather like Turkish shoes or, as described in Mexico, 'ladies’ slippers’ and there are claims of medicinal benefits too — although its property of being able to lower cholesterol levels should probably be taken with a pinch of salt — if that was allowed.
While most achocha are best eaten small, the exception is Caigua achocha, the larger stuffing variety, which should be allowed to grow to full size and the seeds removed before stuffing the fruits.
They can be eaten raw while smaller and still tender, lightly stir fried or steamed.
Suggested varieties of achocha, of which there are several available to grow from seed in the UK, include:
Fat baby (Cyclanthera brachystachya): This is the easiest one to grow outdoors in the UK. The fruits grow singly.
Ladies’ slippers (Cyclanthera pedata): The fruits usually appear in twos and the plant has been grown successfully in UK climes much cooler than ours.
Caigua achocha (Cyclanthera pedata): This is a large fruited version, 10cm to 20cm long, and used for stuffing. This one is likely to be more productive when grown in a greenhouse or polytunnel.
Exploding cucumber (Cyclanthera explodens): This is another related species of achocha, which spreads the seeds around by bursting open and 'exploding’, to hurl the seeds some distance. But, unlike broom, another great exploder, they apparently do so while still green.
The fruits are about half the size of fat baby. Care should be taken when collecting and preparing the fruits in case they go off in your face.
Saving Achocha seeds is easy. If you allow some fruits to mature, scrape the dark jagged seeds from the fruit and dry on kitchen paper.
Penny generously sent me many more than I can use next year. If readers want some, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org (the address for all your gardening tips and tales) with your name and address that I can paste to an envelope, and I’ll do my best.
Likewise, write to me at Brannon House, 123 Pyle Street, Newport, PO3O 1ST with an addressed envelope and I’ll look after postage. First come, first served.
Happy New Year!
Sitting down to the battle of the sprouts
TURNING back to Christmas, just passed, my card of the year prize goes not to the partying pisum sativum wishing me a Ha-pea Christmas, but to Thompson & Morgan, which also sent me all manner of interesting varieties to trial — a nice start to the end of the year.
It had a retro feel, with a 1950s’ family tucking in to a giant plate of Brussels sprouts.
And the slogan? "Getting your family to eat Brussels sprouts isn’t a battle with Trafalgar."
The picture of the sprouts, poking through the card from behind, was on a packet of the company’s Trafalgar sprouts.
T&M told me I would have no trouble encouraging my family to enjoy them because they are so sweet and tasty. We’ll see about that. We have a 14 year old, who is, well, 14, and a 19-year-old vegetarian, who is not that fond of vegetables.
T&M challenges me to Tweet, Facebook or blog comment. I promise, you’ll hear first of the family’s trial by sprout.
Seed firm reflects on its illustrious past
I RECEIVE a lot of seed catalogues in the post, but my prize — for the crop of 2014 — goes to Suttons for its retro cover, with a flavour of its founding in the early 19th century by John Sutton.
One thing you may not know about the company, which built on its early reputation for supplying flower and vegetable seeds, is since 1922 it has provided the grass seed on which Wimbledon has relied.
Suttons received royal patronage in 1858, when Queen Victoria requested Martin Hope Sutton to supply seeds to the royal household and the honour of the royal warrant has been bestowed on the firm ever since.
It was well ahead of its time too in setting up its own purity and germination testing laboratory 80 years before the practice became law — in 1920.