Once I had an uncle who bought the garden of an old estate and built his house in it.
The garden was about three acres in size and surrounded by a high brick wall.
The brick was beautiful.
Mellow oranges, yellows and creams, softened by age and rain, wind and snow, Here and there ivy grew and in this ivy small birds nested, making the wall a living thing.
To reach my uncles house we first had to deal with an immense wooden gate, which fitted precisely against the arched entrance.
This gate contained a smaller pedestrian gate in the middle of it.
A gate within a gate was a thing of magic to us children.
It was the chore of the older of us to go through the pedestrian gate, and lift the iron bolt. Once we managed this we could push the huge gate open, sliding it along its runners.
Sometimes it took two of us to succeed in sliding the gate open especially if it had been raining.
Inside another magical scene awaited us.
A long avenue lined with cordoned apple trees led up to the house.
Around the trunk of each apple tree hung a small pewter plate inscribed with the name of the variety and held in place by a chain.
I was fascinated by these names and remember wandering along reading them out loud as though reciting poetry.
Beauty of Bath, Lextons superb, James Grieve, Lord Lambourne, Bramley seedling,
and my favourite of all Ballinora Pippin.
I was also curious as to how some of the tree’s appeared to be eating their names as the plates became embedded in the trunks with time.
On either side of this avenue were two meadows. One in which lived a jersey cow and in the other a donkey, the field was dotted with free ranging chickens and a cross cockerel, who caused us to run for cover whenever he decided to investigate our games.
But most magical of all was the peach house.
A relic of by gone days, The large domed shaped Victorian style glass house grew one remaining ancient and very gnarled peach tree.
And from one of these ancient branches, my uncle had hung a swing for us.
Health and safety was unheard of then (nowadays there is no way eight unruly children would be allowed free in such a glass filled playground) but to my knowledge we never broke a pane.
Instead we played our imaginary games and took turns swinging for hours on rainy Sunday afternoons in the warm environs of this tropical heaven while the adults sat inside boringly drinking tea and talking.
And it was here we witnessed the growth of a most wonderful thing, only known to us from fairy tales! A pumpkin.
A pumpkin whose tendrils, my uncle announced proudly, grew a foot long each night!
He lifted the giant leaves to show us the orange fruit and on each subsequent visit we were amazed to see how bigger and bigger the fruit had grown until, one day, my uncle sat my younger brother on top of it and his feet couldn’t reach the ground.
What my uncle did with these large fruits I can’t remember.
He may well have grown them for our amusement as he and my aunt had no children of his own at that stage.
The rest of his garden was a fabulous array of flowers and vegetables but I was too young to appreciate those.
My Uncle died from a heart attack. He was Found sitting upright on his favourite seat against the sunny wall of his neatly kept garden as though viewing his domain for the last time. His death occurred in a manner many a gardener would wish for when their time came.
It was not until I was living in the west of Ireland growing my food organically that I added pumpkins to my garden, growing them in a corner I kept for trying out the more unusual variety of vegetable.
Along with asparagus and salsify and purple podded peas and okra, they grew feverishly and wildly.
Unrestrained, they cascaded over my stone wall and sharing the tied hazel rods with various types of runner beans, they elbowed their way up among them exuberantly and on reaching the top, waved their tendrils at me frantically as though looking for my attention in the hopes that I would supply them with something new to catch hold of so they could continue on their merry way.
Initially I grew the ordinary orange variety along with spaghetti squash but soon I was planting acorn squash and a beautiful blue skinned variety whose name I have forgotten but whose flesh was orange and sweet and great in soups and stews.
Then one year myself and some like minded friends set up the North West Organic pumpkin growers association.
The aim of the association was simple.
You planted your pumpkin seed in the spring and entered it into the pumpkin competition on the thirty first of October at the pumpkin party.
The heaviest Pumpkin would be the winner.
We each took a turn in hosting the party.
There were also prizes for the most quirky and the most colourful.
Of course there was food and wine and chat, but setting up that weighing scales was the highlight of the night.
As the years went by and more friends joined we made one change to our original rule; the pumpkin had to be grown from the seed of the previous years winning pumpkin.
We also added a pumpkin carving competition, initially for the children, but soon the adults were joining in with enthusiasm and it became the responsibility of the person hosting the party to ensure that a good supply of Plasters and and larger gauze and bandages were kept handy.
The prize was a year’s subscription to the Irish Gardening magazine.
Oh what fun we had!
We teased each other unmercifully, threatening all manner of sabotage!
The most malevolent of all being to creep into each others garden at night and place slugs on pumpkin patches.
As October approached we began to call more frequently to the houses of the other competitors in pretence of cups of tea and chats (an important part of life in the country) But really we just wanted to check how their pumpkins were faring.
Sometimes there were calamities.
A potential winner rotting at the stem!
Or developing powdery mildew.
The west of Ireland with its damp summers is not the best growing place for pumpkins.
But we did our best.
We made sure to plant them on a mound of good friable well drained compost and to lift the ever enlarging fruits onto a heap of dry straw.
A damp climate is also much loved by slugs and snails and with our grow organically rule it meant searching for various non toxic ways to deal with these creatures,
Some used jars of beer in circles around the precious plant.
Up turned oranges was another favoured.
Seaweed when dry and crackly, crushed egg shells.
Turf ash was also recommended.
But no matter what method was used, if you were to cycle by the pumpkin growers houses at cock crow, you would see their silhouettes stooped against the early morning light in their constant battle against snails, and what they said or did to these mischief making molluscs when they found them is not printable.
But still despite all this care, there were inevitable slug bitten causalities, and much tears shed.
Those who sympathetically patted the shoulders of the grieving, hid their smiles, for the loss of the griever upped the chances for those whose pumpkins who survived.
It certainly did not leave much room for compassion but we could always make up for that over the winter months.
And like fishermen, the merits and potential size of the ‘one that got away’ was always discussed at length at the party.
I know the competition is still carried on despite my absence.
Because I receive a lovely invitation every year to come down and join the pumpkiney festivities.
with grandchildren of my own now, Halloween is spent carving pumpkins here in Co Wicklow instead….
And finding interesting pumpkin recipes.
No longer having a garden, I first have to go along some autumnal berry festooned lanes….
And buy a pumpkin!
And bring it safely home!
And when I find that recipe….
for now comes the sad part. I take a sharp knife and cut that wonderful work of art…..
into unruly pieces… and drizzling some oil over them and a tsp of soft brown sugar, roast them in the oven at 180 degrees for 45 mins.
This is what they should look like.
I make a Halloween Souffle, following the instructions below
I think Ottolenghi would approve.
And he might also approve my pumpkin clafoutis recipe made from the leftover roasted pumpkin.
My daughters certainly did.
Recipe for the Yellow bicycles Pumpkin clafoutis.
50g ground Almonds.
2 tbls flour
100g castor sugar.
2 egg yolks.
120 g mashed roasted pumpkin.
250 mls cream.
Blend all the ingredients together in a large bowl and pour the batter into buttered pie dish. Cook in oven marked 200/gas mark 6 for 30 mins or until it feels set when you press your finger against the center.
Serve hot with vanilla icecream