Here’s a picture starter to get you in the right mood for this week’s post. Any guesses as what it might be? Answer at the end.
Did you know we had a cucumber industry in Britain? or that we’ve had one for several centuries? Either way you should know it’s facing extinction because of cheap foreign imports undercutting British growers. There is now less than 100 hectares dedicated to the crop – the lowest figure for over 100 years.
The industry is still largely based in the Lea Valley where it was established in the 19thc and, of course, it is fighting back as best it can. Its latest wheeze is Cucumber Day held at Waltham Abbey, complete with a ‘decorate the cucumber’ competition and prizes for the largest fruit!
But what’s the history of this industry? When did the cucumber arrive in Britain? When did it enter mass production? How big can a cucumber grow? And why do people always seem to prefer their cucumbers to be straight?
It’s often thought cucumbers can be seen in Egyptian wall paintings, and that they are mentioned in the Bible in connection with the exodus from Egypt, with the Book of Numbers 11:5 reading: “We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick.”
Unfortunately its probably not that simple, and these fruits were probably not the cucumber as we know it, but a small green-fruited wild chate melon Curcumis melo var chate.
The misunderstanding probably arose when the Bible was translated into English in the 16th no-one knew about chate melons and assumed the Hebrew kishuim was the cucumber they knew about and grew. The problem applies to other old translations of ancient texts as well and cucumber should be understood as referring to these chate melons instead. We can’t even turn to the archaeobotanical evidence either because the seeds of the wild cucumber and the chate melon are virtually indistinguishable.
This is a bit annoying because I found a lovely story about the Egyptians concocting a drink from cucumbers which I was going to repeat. Nevertheless, despite the fact they were probably these wild melons instead, I’ll repeat it anyway! Apparently the drink was started by cutting a hole in a ripe fruit, breaking up the insides with a sharp stick to liquefy it, then plugging the hole and burying it in the ground for several days presumably to ferment, before it was exhumed and drunk. That last sentence should probably be followed with the warning: “Don’t try this at home.”Instead the modern cucumber is an annual, thought to have originated in the valleys of the Himalayas. Its probable ancestor is Cucumis sativus formerly hardwickii, a small spiny fruit which is also extremely bitter. These natural defenses deter predatory insects and other pests. Archaeological evidence suggests the cucumber is likely to have been brought into cultivation in the Indus Valley at least 3000 years ago, and spread from there into the Near East by the seventh century B.C, and from there into the ancient mediterranean world.
Documentary evidence suggests that the Romans were enthusiastic cucumber growers and spread their cultivation throughout the empire. Both Pliny the Elder and Columella wrote about them and the emperor Tiberius is reported to have been so fond of them that he had the equivalent of cold frames built to extend the growing season. Certainly cucumber seeds have been found at several Roman sites in London.
Cucumbers merit a mention in the first printed Herbal – The grete herball – of 1526, and get many short comments in medical texts through the 16thc. Henry Lyte’s New Herbal [see post 24th Oct 2014] lists several sorts and suggests that “The iuyce of the barke and roote of wilde Cucumber, doth also purge fleme, and cholerique, and waterish humours, & is good for such as haue the Dropsie” as well as calming the pain of gout and toothache.
We can see how well they have become established in the garden by this period by their appearance in all the major gardening texts. The earliest is Thomas Hill’s Gardeners Labyrinth [see post 3rd Jan 2015] which gives instructions for their cultivation, including the suggestion that the seeds should be “steeped in milke or luke warme water for a night, and committed to the Earth, vnder a warme ayre” so that they ” do farre speedier breake, and appeare aboue ground.”
Their ubiquity can be confirmed by the way that cucumbers were also frequently used as comparators ….”Of forme like a long Peare, or rather for the crookednesse like a Cucumer of the lesser sort” [Fynes Morrison, An itinerary, 1617]…. “It was of the bignesse and fashion of a Cucumber …not unlike a Cucumber in shape [ Purchas his pilgrimes, 1609] …it has a fruit like the wilde Cucumber, but blacker [John Gerard].
By the early 17thc John Parkinson has a page of notes about cucumbers which is quite revealing. Firstly he describes the way the plant grows, then he lists 7 different kinds although none is described as “ordinary Cowcumber’ which is illustrated. There are “the long green”; “the short cowcumber” [ helpfully described as being “short and of an equal bigness in the body, and an unequal bigness at both ends”]; the long yellow [“which is yellowish from the beginning and more yellow when it is ripe” & which it has been “measured to be 13 inches long” but must not be confused with “the small long cucumber”; the “early ripe French”; “the Dantzig kind”; and lastly “the Muscovy kind”.
In his section on its uses we can see how widespread not only was there cultivation but also the sharing of their culinary and medical uses.
The 1633 edition of John Gerard’s Herbal is even more complex, with a lengthy chapter on Cucumbers “some greater, others lesser; some of the Garden, some wilde; some of one fashion, and some of another”.
Then as now, cucumbers were eaten raw and pickled. The mid-17thc saw several varieties of cucumbers appearing on the first seedsmen’s lists, and gardening books like Stephen Blake’s The compleat gardeners practice of 1664, giving very detailed instructions for the cultivation of the crop, and but this did not make them universally popular.
Although Samuel Pepys in 1661 talked of opening a opened a pot of “Girkins”—”which are rare things”—that had been a present from a sea captain friend and probably brought over from Holland – a couple of years later in August 1663 he reports the alarming news that “Mr Newburne was “dead of eating cowcumbers,” and that he’d heard of another person dying of similar causes a few days before.
Dr Johnson obviously hated them: Cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing. However the poet William Cowper obviously loved them and devoted a long section on his major poem The Task to them and their cultivation .
“to raise the prickly and green-coated gourd, So grateful to the palate, and when rare So coveted, else base and disesteem’d – Food for the vulgar merely – is an art That toiling ages have but just matured”
Cowper managed to raise his ‘cucumbers when they were ‘rare’ ie out of season by using a cold frame, and this option was soon available not just to market gardeners and the middle class. It was soon supplemented, of course, by the greenhouse. The value of out of season crops had of course long been recognized. As Malcolm Thick shows in The Neat House Gardens (1998) London’s market gardeners had been raising crops very profitably like this since at least the mid-17thc, using bell glasses and glass lights and frames.
By the later 18thc cultivation was down to a fine art, so fine in fact that at least one professional grower, James McPhail, Gardener to Lord Hawkesbury, wrote a 314 page A Treatise on the Culture of the Cucumber in 1794. You can read it in full at:
Much of the book was taken up with incredibly detailed descriptions of the weather and every task that was carried out. It reveals the extraordinary dedication there must have been to perfecting the crop.
Of course, it is, as so often, to John Claudius Loudon that we should turn for potted history of horticultural advice about cucumber growing (if potted is the appropriate phrase for such a voluminous writer!) His Encyclopaedia of gardening, dedicates 12 densely packed pages of tiny print with extracts from all the leading garden writers of the previous 40 or 50 years.
Loudon tells us that the cucumber is “cultivated generally and extensively, in forcing-frames and in the open air, and especially near large cities and towns. In Hertfordshire home fields are annually seen covered with cucumbers without the aid of dung or glass, the produce of which is sent to the metropolis for pickling. In March, cucumbers fetch in the London market a guinea a dozen; in August and September 1 penny a dozen. The village of Sandy, Bedfordshire, has been known to furnish 10,000 bushels of picking cucumbers in one week.”
But Loudon wasn’t the only writer on cucumbers at that time. At least three professional growers published lengthy [but sadly largely unillustrated] sets of instructions.
Thomas Watkins ‘many years foreman with Mr Grange of Hackney’ wrote “The Art of Promoting the Growth of the Cucumber and Melon” in 1824.
George Mills who was gardener to the Rothschilds at Gunnersbury Park wrote an 101 page account dedicated largely to the growing of cucumbers which had over 70 other professional gardeners as subscribers. Like McPhail, Mills also included a very detailed daily diary of his observations.
Thomas Moore of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Regents Park wrote The Theory and Practice applied to the cultivation of the Cucumber in the Winter Season in 1844.
If you want to know more then you read or download them at:
With cheaper glass and Loudon’s own improved glazing bars for greenhouses, larger and larger glasshouses could soon be constructed and from Victorian times onwards, cheap labour and cheap coal meant that cucumbers, could be commercially produced under glass in England all year round. And commercial cultivation led, of course,to fierce competition and constant attempts to improve the quality of the strains grown.
By 1856 when The great French nurseryman Philippe Andre de Vilmorin wrote a book on vegetable gardening, he was able to list 46 kinds of cucumber including some clearly of English origins such as Syon House, Maid of Kent, Webbs Invincible, & Cheltenham Surprise. His book was translated and edited by William Robinson in 1885. The 1920 edition includes dozens of varieties and sorts of all kinds and can be found at:
But clearly the cucumbers themselves, however good their breeding, weren’t perfect and in particular their tendency to grow in a non-linear way seems to have upset George Stephenson, of railway fame.
Stephenson lived, after his second marriage in 1819, at Tapton House, a few miles south of Sheffield in the neighbourhood of his principal coalmines. He was an ardent gardener and apparently became frustrated with getting crooked fruit from his cucumbers. So he decided to do something about it, and began maturing each cucumber in a glass tube measuring about a foot in length and with a diameter of about two inches. These somewhat resembled test tubes, with a slight curvature on one side and with one end sealed with a knob.
In clear molded glass they cost 1s 9d a pound at the glasshouse and 2s 4d in flint-glass. They soon went into mass production. His early biographer, Samuel Smiles, noted…
You can still see one at Chesterfield Museum and another in the museum of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers of which he was president.
Stephenson wasn’t the only person to devise a technique or gadgetry for making cucumbers grow long and straight, as will be clear from another post soon. But you do have to wonder why people were so obsessed with stopping the fruit being curly… after all it doesn’t affect the taste. Perhaps it’s to do with the fact that your picture starter for 10 was an 1815 silver-plated version of the gadget below…..Stephenson’s mechanical [altho not steam-driven!] cucumber slicer – which of course could not be operated without non-curly fruit!
The true lover of the cucumber sandwich should be forever indebted.
But I’m running close to my self-imposed word limit again [otherwise almost every post would potentially be a mini-War and Peace] so I’m afraid that, other than telling you that there is a lot of controversy about the size of the world’s biggest ever cucumber, you will have to wait for more cucumber-related trivia until another post soon….