growing squash at snaylham farm
Roland and Rebecca Longly grow vegetables at Snaylham Farm, near Icklesham in East Sussex. The farm has two distinct soil types, very fine, sandy loam on the upland, with a silty loam down in the Brede valley.
It's a beautiful place in the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a collection of barns and an oast house, with an un-tarted-up, old-fashioned charm. Their tractor - a lovely old thing called Nelson - is a David Brown 885 Narrow (1973). It does the job of fetching and carrying the crops from the field just as well as anything brand new - this couple are definitely not of the flashy kit, chuck-it-away brigade.
The Longlys grow interesting and unusual veg - mainly for local box schemes and independent greengrocers - varieties that not all of us know, but if we do, they're the ones we want to eat. They may look a little craggier and less polished than others, but are usually packed with flavour.
The Longlys' veg fields stretch over 35 acres. Crops include 'Romanesco' cauliflower, green, black and red kale, as well as rainbow chard and a great gang of different squash, which they've been growing for more than 10 years and have refined to what they know excels.
They eat the food they grow, so are always looking for the varieties with the best flavour, and heavy croppers of small to medium-sized fruit. This rules out the Hallowe'en-friendly Italian jam squash ('Zucca da Marmellata') and 'Giant Pink Banana', which produce only three or four enormous fruit. The big pumpkins and squash are great fun - and I always grow a few for that reason - but they only really sell to restaurants who can use them up in one go.
The average shopper wants their squash petite. In Italian markets, they get around the size issue by having one huge and handsome fruit on the stall from which people can buy a slice. You buy your segment and have it weighed, but we Brits don't have this tradition. Huge-fruiters here are generally just for show.
choosing your squash
The biggest squash the Longlys grow is ' Crown Prince', a famously tasty variety although, as Rebecca reports, it often gets too big (up to 10-14lb). One or two fruit can fill a crate, making it difficult to lift and trickier to sell, but she still loves it. It has that beautiful blue-green, verdigris skin and is a relatively good producer. It's an excellent storer and the orange flesh is dense and holds together well, so is ideal for roasting, with a good, waxy texture and taste. With any squash, it's good to save some seeds when you scrape them out for roasting but the seeds of this variety are strangely horrid-tasting.
The Longlys' favourite squash varieties are the Squash Kabochas, F1 hybrids with a deep green or orange skin, and they also rate the very similar 'Sunspot'. They had a long-standing favourite 'Buttercup', which they no longer grow - it is too small a cropper - but the Kabochas have very similar flavour and give them almost double the harvest. It has rich flame orange, dense flesh without a hint of wateriness and a big taste to go with it, a little sweet, but not too sugary, slightly nutty crossed with sweet potato. It is also the perfect size (3-4lb), which four to six people could polish off in one sitting served as a side vegetable, or it would be a perfect amount for one pan of soup.
There are four others the Longlys grow every year and have stood the test of time: 'Celebration', 'Yellow Patty Pan', 'Little Gem Rolet' and the spaghetti squash. 'Celebration' is pretty, a mix of green, cream and orange; it's a fantastic cropper and stores better than any other variety they've grown, but the flesh is pale. The colour of squash flesh seems to correspond overall with the flavour - the deeper the colour, the richer the taste.
'Yellow Patty Pan', Squash 'Little Gem Rolet' and the spaghetti squash are summer and autumn producers. Like courgettes, you can crop these lightly over months, starting to pick in August, and the more you harvest, the more the plants produce. That's handy for any vegetable grower and I've added these to my sowing list next year.
Squash 'Little Gem Rolet' is a very heavy cropper and easy to cook well. Just roast it or boil it whole until it's soft to the tip of a knife (about 40 minutes at 175C/350F/gas 4, or 30 at a gentle rolling boil), slice off the top and eat with a spoon, seasoned with salt and pepper, like a boiled egg. I also love these stuffed with pork mince and pine nuts flavoured with chilli, rosemary and sesame oil. The Patty Pans are similar - lovely in stir-fries when small in summer and excellent for soups and mash in autumn.
Spaghetti squash is better not thought of as a squash at all. Its texture and flavour is much gentler and softer, but still delicious. Boil for 30 minutes, slice in half and remove the seeds and douse liberally with fruity olive oil or butter, salt and pepper and mix this in the flesh. I thought I would find these too watery and boring, but they're perfect - served on their own - for a simple midweek supper.
sowing squash seeds
The final piece of advice from the Longlys - sow your squash in the usual way, the seed pushed in vertically, direct into the soil, or in a pot to grow on a bit before planting outside into very organic-rich soil. Then - the absolute key to a good harvest - pinch out the growing tips of all the plant shoots in mid-August and keep doing so. This stops plants putting on triffid-like, leafy growth and forces them to conserve energy for flower and fruit production. Without pinching out, the quick growers often just drop their flowers in favour of shooting out like a giant squid. Keep them contained and you'll have many more fruit to harvest.