It really wasn’t his fault. The condition is common enough to have its own name: crooking. It’s caused by any number of things, from pollination to poor growing conditions and pest interference. The situation was slightly improved when he began to plant these creeping vines not outside along the ground but in his glasshouse, in pots, to hang down heavily from stakes.
Curly or straight, their shape didn’t affect their flavour. Uniformly, his cucumbers were exceptionally cucumber-y, which was why, until recently, I loathed them.
What was the point of these watery vegetables - 95% water, indeed - that leaked all over a 1970s mixed salad. That water does contain electrolytes, however, which is useful if you’re dehydrated, and they do provide various nutrients.
But where they score, if you’re struggling to slither into your bathing attire, is they’re low in calories, fat, and cholesterol. Then, having laid too long in the sun, you can smother yourself in slices of cucumber to soothe the skin and reduce the inflammation and swelling. A taxing night on the tiles? Slices of cucumber laid over the eyes decrease morning-after puffiness.
For even more beauty applications, cucumber blended in a processor and sieved makes a natural toner, left on the skin for half an hour then rinsed, that can help clear the pores. Equal quantities of cucumber juice and yogurt makes a space back that helps dry skin.
So what of their qualities as a food?
They’ve a lovely crunch but an illusive flavour that some compare to the melon which is not such a stretch when you learn that the cucumber, being part of the same Cucurbitaceae family as the melon, is, in fact, a fruit. I prefer the melon. Left to ripen to yellow, cucumbers become unpleasantly bitter and are good for nothing, though there are some deluded people who consider them fit for soup in this state.
While cucumbers at their peak are a key component of gazpacho, left to feature on their own there’s not a lot to commend them. With, in my humble opinion, one exception: the cucumber sandwich.
Along with strawberries, in my family these signified summer. My father would very thinly slice a malted granary loaf and spread it with soft butter. He’d peel a cucumber and slice that as finely as he could, layering it over the buttered bread. Salt was sprinkled over before it was covered with another buttered slice of bread. Then he’d cut off the crusts, divide the sandwich in two and then into slender fingers.
Aside from grating a cucumber into Greek tzatziki with a generous tablespoon of finely chopped mint, those sandwiches were about the only way I could be bothered with cucumber.
Until recently, that is, when I discovered Smacked Cucumber Salad. It’s a Chinese dish, which is no surprise, given that cucumbers originate in South East Asia. But don’t let that stop you making this dish in south west France. It goes amazingly well with duck dishes, cutting the richness of the bird. It’s best made with those small courgette-length Middle Eastern cukes but a regular one is fine.
- 1 cucumber (about 300g)
- ½-1 tablespoon salt
- 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons caster sugar
- 2 teaspoon soy sauce
- 4 tablespoons Chinese rice vinegar or red wine vinegar
- 1 teaspoon red chilli flakes or more to taste
- 2 tablespoons sesame oil
Slice the cucumber lengthways in half and lay the two halves cut side down on a board. Smack them hard along their length with a rolling pin or meat cleaver. Slice the halves diagonally into 1cm pieces.
Put the slices in a sieve or colander, toss with salt, and set above a bowl to exude their water for 20 minutes.
In a separate bowl, mix together the remaining ingredients. Shake the cucumber to eliminate any remaining liquid then decant into a serving bowl, pour over the sauce, mix thoroughly and serve at once.
This column written by Julia Watson originally appeared in the July 2021 edition of The Bugle.