Italian Ridged Cucumbers
Photo ©Evie Saffron Strands
The first cucumbers were cultivated in India around 3,500 years ago. It took a thousand years for cultivation to reach as far as the Mediterranean region. Now, the Cucumber is the second most valued Cucurbit (member of the gourd family) throughout the world – the first being the watermelon. The cucumber is around 95% water (the watermelon around 92%) but both are good sources of essential vitamins and minerals. Unsurprisingly, both are at their refreshing best eaten raw and cool. The larger a cucumber grows the milder it gets and the higher its natural sugar content becomes – though this is a modest 1-2%.
With older varieties of cucumber, the male flowers needed to be removed to prevent a bitter flavour developing but that astringency has been bred out of modern varieties. Breeders too have taken out the ‘windy’ element associated with older types - ‘Burpless’ varieties are the norm now.
Fermented Cucumbers, or Acidified Pickled Cucumbers which produces a less complex flavoured pickle, are better made with small, thicker-skinned varieties of cucumber. We buy Eastern European grown ones especially for this treatment as they stand up to the ‘pickle’ solutions without turning to mush as thin-skinned types do. Marinating them in a sweet dill pickle is the easiest of methods for preserving them when they are at their best. There are also ‘Armenian Cucumbers’, which are actually a form of African melon, and their relative the Gherkin whose true fruits are quite rounded.
The subtle, grassy, flavour and melon-like aroma of Cucumber is well matched to dill, both the green herb and the seed which is well known for its digestive properties. Scattering borage flowers on a cucumber salad deepens its flavour, as well as making it look beautiful, whereas a sprig of mint contrasts. Cucumber has an affinity with soft, creamy cheeses and yoghurt. It can also be paired with its close relative the melon, especially the green-fleshed Galia type, in a cold soup or salad. There’s ‘Salad Elona’ which calls for slices of cucumber and strawberries to be seasoned with salt, pepper and sugar and a little dry white wine or wine vinegar. Or you can make a Cucumber salad by marinating thinly sliced shallot in lemon juice for 15 minutes, whisking in olive oil then pouring this over thinly sliced cucumbers. Serve with yoghurt and mint.
You can cook with cucumber. If you are including it in a sauce you might want to salt it first to draw out some of the water. There are recipes for creamy Cucumber soups to be served hot, and brothy versions to be served chilled. For an accompaniment to baked or poached fish, sauté diced cucumber, peeled or unpeeled, in a little butter until just tender, add salt and pepper, diced tomatoes and chervil or dill fronds.