Food of the Week: Cucumber
Posted on July 10, 2012
The cucumber (Cucumis sativus) is a widely cultivated plant in the gourd family Cucurbitaceae, which includes squash, and in the same genus as the muskmelon. The plant is a creeping vine which bears cylindrical edible fruit when ripe. There are three main varieties of cucumber: “slicing”, “pickling”, and “burpless”. Within these varieties, several different cultivars have emerged. The cucumber is originally from India but is now grown on most continents. Many different varieties are traded on the global market.
Cucumbers originated in India where a great many varieties of cucumber have been observed. It has been cultivated for at least 3,000 years, and was probably introduced to other parts of Europe by the Greeks or Romans. Records of cucumber cultivation appear in France in the 9th century, England in the 14th century, and in North America by the mid-16th century.
The cucumber is listed among the foods of ancient Ur, and the legend of Gilgamesh describes people eating cucumbers. Some sources also state it was produced in ancient Thrace, and it is certainly part of modern cuisine in Bulgaria and Turkey, parts of which make up that ancient state. From India, it spread to Greece (where it was called “σίκυον”, síkyon) and Italy (where the Romanswere especially fond of the crop), and later into China.
According to Pliny the Elder (The Natural History, Book XIX, Chapter 23), the Ancient Greeks grew cucumbers, and there were different varieties in Italy, Africa, and modern-day Serbia.
According to Pliny, the Emperor Tiberius had the cucumber on his table daily during summer and winter. The Romans reportedly used artificial methods (similar to the greenhouse system) of growing to have it available for his table every day of the year. “Indeed, he was never without it; for he had raised beds made in frames upon wheels, by means of which the cucumbers were moved and exposed to the full heat of the sun; while, in winter, they were withdrawn, and placed under the protection of frames glazed with mirrorstone. Reportedly, they were also cultivated in cucumber houses glazed with oiled cloth known as “specularia”.
Pliny the Elder describes the Italian fruit as very small, probably like a gherkin, describing it as a wild cucumber considerably smaller than the cultivated one. Pliny also describes the preparation of a medication known as elaterium, though some scholars believe he was referring toCucumis silvestris asininus, a species different from the common cucumber. Pliny also writes about several other varieties of cucumber, including the cultivated cucumber, and remedies from the different types (9 from the cultivated, 5 from the “anguine”, and 26 from the “wild”). The Romans are reported to have used cucumbers to treat scorpion bites, bad eyesight, and to scare away mice. Wives wishing for children wore them around their waists. They were also carried by the midwives, and thrown away when the child was born.
Charlemagne had cucumbers grown in his gardens in 9th Century France. They were reportedly introduced into England in the early 14th century, lost, then reintroduced approximately 250 years later. The Spaniards (through the ItalianChristopher Columbus) brought cucumbers to Haiti in 1494. In 1535, Jacques Cartier, a French explorer, found “very great cucumbers” grown on the site of what is now Montreal.
In human cultivation, the varieties of cucumbers are classified into three main varieties: “slicing”, “pickling”, and “burpless”.
Cucumbers which are grown to be eaten fresh are called slicing cucumbers. They are mainly eaten in the unripe, green form. The ripe, yellow form normally becomes bitter and sour. Slicers grown commercially for the North American market are generally longer, smoother, more uniform in color, and have a much tougher skin. Slicers in other countries are smaller and have a thinner, more delicate skin. Smaller slicing cucumbers can also be pickled.
Cucumbers can be pickled for flavor and longer shelf-life. Although any cucumber can be pickled, commercial pickles are made from cucumbers specially bred for uniformity of length-to-diameter ratio and lack of voids in the flesh. Those cucumbers intended for pickling, called picklers, grow to about 7 centimeters (3 in) to 10 centimeters (4 in) long and 2.5 centimeters (1 in) wide. As compared to slicers, picklers tend to be shorter, thicker, less regularly shaped, and have bumpy skin with tiny white or black-dotted spines. They are never waxed. Color can vary from creamy yellow to pale or dark green. Pickling cucumbers are sometimes sold fresh as “Kirby” or “Liberty” cucumbers. The pickling process removes or degrades much of the nutrient content, especially that of vitamin C. Pickled cucumbers are soaked in brine or a combination of vinegar and brine, although not vinegar alone, often along with various spices. Pickled cucumbers are called “pickles” in the US or “gherkins” or “wallies” in the UK, the latter name being more common in the north of England, where it refers to the large vinegar-pickled cucumbers commonly sold in fish and chip shops. (Although the gherkin is of the same species as the cucumber, it is of a completely different cultivar.)
English cucumbers are sweeter and have a thinner skin than other varieties of cucumber, and are reputed to be easy to digest and to have a pleasant taste. They can grow as long as 2 feet (0.61 m). They are nearly seedless, and have a delicate skin which is pleasant to eat. Most commonly grown in greenhouses, these parthenocarpic cucumbers are often found in grocery markets, shrink-wrapped in plastic. They are sometimes marketed as seedless or burpless, because the seeds and skin of other varieties of cucumbers are said to give some people gas.
There appears to be variability in the human olfactory response to cucumbers, with the majority of people reporting a mild, almost watery flavor or a light melon taste, while a small but vocal minority report a highly repugnant taste, some say almost perfume-like.
There are several ways to remove bitterness from cucumbers. One way used in India, includes slicing off the ends of a cucumber, sprinkling some salt, and rubbing the now-exposed ends of said cucumber with the sliced-off ends until it appears to froth. Another such urban legend states that one ought to peel a cucumber away from the end that was once attached to a vine, otherwise one risked spreading the bitterness throughout the cucumber.
Cucumbers can best be stored sealed in shrink foil. Sealing a cucumber increases its shelf life considerably.