Cucumbers are on sale all year round but their natural season is August and September. That means, as the song says, the best is yet to come — and it starts this weekend. Those bought at other times of the year are usually grown in tunnels.
The phrase ‘cool as a cucumber’ is not an old wife’s tale and is probably the most scientifically correct of all terms connected with food: its interior can be as much as 11C cooler than the surrounding temperature.
A Spanishfriend makesgood use of this little fact. When the temperature in the kitchen gets unbearable during a typical Majorcan summer, she cuts a couple of thin slices from a cucumber and sticks them on to her temple.
The cooling effect is instantaneous and has to be experienced to be believed — give it a try and you’ll see.
When something is of absolutely of no interest to Spaniards they say: “Me importa un pepino.” This literally means ‘I don’t care a cucumber about it’. A more colloquial translation would be ‘I don’t give two hoots’ or ‘I don’t give a damn.’
The saying exists because the cucumber isn’t a highly rated vegetable, partly because it is 96 per cent water and has few nutrients. Dr Johnson (1709-84), the compiler of the first English dictionary that tried to standardise spelling, wasn’t a lover of cucumbers. He wrote in 1773: “A cucumber should be well sliced and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out as good or nothing.”
But everything is relative. For those trying to lose some weight, cucumbers are good for something — filling an empty belly when they’re absolutely famished but don’t want to break their diet.
Cucumbers have only 15 calories per 100grs, which means that half a kilo have the same number of calories as an apple. When dieters are anxious to eat something that will fill them, they have no difficulty in choosing half a kilo of cucumbers instead of an apple.
Researchers at the British Nutrition Foundation said cucumbers make us feel full while adding very few calories to our daily total. Cucumbers have the lowest calorie count per gram of all foods on the BNF guide.
The cucumber’s few vitamins and trace elements are mainly in the skin, so we should eat them unpeeled when possible. As soon as the skin comes off they lose all their vitamin A and trace elements, but keep their vitamin C, folic acid and fibre.
The cucumber sandwich is an essential part of an English afternoon tea. It is made with crustless slices of bread from an artisanal loaf — never wrapped sliced bread from a supermarket.
The thin slices of bread are buttered, covered with slivers of peeled cucumber, with a pinch of salt and a touch of milled pepper.
However, some English people spread the slices of cucumber with sour cream mixed with finely chopped parsley or snipped chives. But not at The Ritz or Buckingham Palace.
I don’t know about today, but until six years ago afternoon tea at The Ritz was so poplar with visitors that they started serving it from 11am until 7pm. They never used sour cream on their cucumber sandwiches.
It was the same at Buckingham Palace. Afternoon tea is the Queen’s favourite meal and she always has a very light lunch so she will have an appetite for afternoon tea with its scones, little cakes and the traditional cucumber sandwiches.
Cucumbers are one of our oldest vegetables — although technically they are the fruit of a trailing vine of the gourd family. They were being grown in Asia some 4,000 years ago and were used by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.
The Romans took them to England but they were used only as fodder for mules and asses until the 16th century. At that time people started to cook and pickle them.
In some countries cooks fry them, grill them on hot plates or bake them in the oven. They are said to taste even better than pumpkin or courgettes. For dishes in which cucumbers are cooked consult books on the cooking of Middle Eastern countries, Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Hungary.
But many British people stay well clear of cucumbers at all times because they are one of those foods that repeat on them. This reflux problem is caused by a chemical compound called cucurbitacin that is also found in pumpkin and contributes to the bitter taste in both.
This bitterness and burpiness can be reduced by treatment of the soil and mulch in cucumber beds. Those who have the reflux problem but would still like to eat some cucumber dishes (such as those sandwiches for an English afternoon tea) could try avoiding the pips and also both ends of the cucumber which are richer in cucurbitacin.
The cucumber’s natural low temperature makes it ideal for doing cold soups and dishes in which it is combined with yoghurt, such as raita (India), caçik (Turkey) and tzatziki (Greece).
Russia’s most famous cold soup combines cucumber and yoghurt. It is called chalop and for it you will need: 10 tubs plain yoghurt (Mercadona’s Greek style is best), 2-3 cucumbers (depending on size), 12 small radishes, 100grs spring onions, 2 tbsps snipped fresh dill or fennel, 1 tbsp finely chopped fresh basil, pinch of sweet paprika plus salt and pepper to taste.
Halve the washed but unpeeled cucumbers lengthways, discarding some of the pips if necessary. Slice as thinly as possible and chop finely. The spring onions and radishes should also be chopped very finely. Some cooks grate the radishes, but chopping gives a better texture.
Dilute the yoghurt with a little water (go easy on the amount, you can always add more if needed) and stir in all the ingredients except the paprika, holding back pinches of parsley or dill. Leave in the fridge until very cold and serve in bowls that were kept in the freezer for an hour or so with a final sprinkling of dill and a dusting of sweet paprika.
A refreshing Armenian cold soup called jajik also mixes cucumber with yoghurt. You will need: 500grs of cucumber, 8 tubs of Mercadona’s Greek style yoghurt, 200mls ice-cold water, salt to taste, 2 tbsps finely chopped mint, 2 tbsps finely chopped spring onion (green and white), a few ice cubes.
Peel the cucumbers and slice into eight pieces, discarding any excess pips. Slice the cucumber strips into tiny pieces. Pour the yoghurt into a deepish bowl, add the iced water and blend with a spoon. Stir in the diced cucumber and salt to taste and refrigerate for several hours. Just before serving in individual bowls, sprinkle the soup with the mint and spring onion and stir in an ice cube or two.
As we know from Spain’s gazpacho, cucumbers and tomatoes also pair nicely. For a soup that uses the same combination you will need: 2 biggish cucumbers, 2 large firm but ripe tomatoes (the variety called ‘tomates de ensalada), 6 Quely biscuits, garlic clove, coffee cup of virgen extra olive oil, 1 tbsp red wine vinegar, 1 tbsp snipped fresh dill or fennel, salt and pepper to taste.
Peel and chop the tomatoes, cucumbers and garlic and blitz in a blender with the Quely biscuits, olive oil, wine vinegar and a tea cup of ice-cold water. When the mixture is creamy and smooth transfer it to a deep bowl or tureen.
Season to taste with salt and pepper and refrigerate until very cold. Serve in bowls with a sprinkling of snipped fresh dill or fennel and a few toasted or fried croutons.
A simple soup that is especially refreshing combines cucumbers, yoghurt, lemon and mint…a lovely way to perk up the tastebuds. You will need: 6 tubs of Mercadona Greek style yoghurt, 1 tub of cream, 2 unpeeled cucumbers, 3 tbsps finely chopped fresh mint, 2 medium size lemons, half litre home-made chicken stock, salt and pepper to taste.
Roughly grate the well-washed and unpeeled cucumbers into a deepish bowl. Add the chicken stock and stir in the yoghurt, cream, mint and the juice of the lemons with their grated rind. Whisk until everything is well blended and refrigerate for several hours.
Serve in wide cups or bowls with a dusting of sweet paprika. Other possible garnishes are a little salmon roe or a few slivers of raw beetroot.
For a soup that makes an elegant starter for a summer dinner you will need: 2 medium sized unpeeled cucumbers, 300mls thick cream, 150mls Mercadona Greek style yoghurt, 1 garlic clove pounded to a pulp, 2 tbsps red wine vinegar, salt and pepper to taste, 1 tbsp very finely chopped gherkin, 2 tbsps chopped fresh mint. These quantities are but a guideline and you can vary them according to personal taste.
Wash the cucumbers and grate into a deepish bowl. Stir in the cream and the yoghurt. Add the garlic pulp and the vinegar and season to taste. Stir in the chopped gherkin and refrigerate until very cold.
Stir in the chopped fresh mint just before serving. You can float a few small peeled prawns on top — but not the tasteless frozen ones.
For a parsley soup with a refreshing spicy and tartish taste you will need: 1 large bunch of parsley, 1 small bunch of fresh mint, 250grs fresh spinach, 1.5 litres home-made chicken stock, 2 sliced garlic cloves, 1 tbsp whole cumin seeds, 6 cardamom pods, 2 bay leaves, salt and pepper to taste, juice of one lemon, 2 tubs of Mercadona Greek style yoghurt.
Wash and roughly chop the parsley, mint and spinach. Put them into a large saucepan with the stock, garlic, cumin seeds, cardamom pods and bay leaves. Bring to the boil and simmer form 40 minutes.
Let the soup cool to room temperature, take out the bay leaves and the cardamom pods and blitz in a blender. Season well with salt and pepper and refrigerate for several hours until very cold. Stir in the lemon juice just before serving and add a spoonful of yoghurt to each bowl.
An elegant soup for a summer dinner is made with the soft-leafed French lettuce (called lechuga francesa in Spanish)
and it must be very fresh. You will need: 1 large lechuga francesa, 50grs butter, 1 bunch spring onions, 500mls home-made chicken stock, 500mls of Mercadona’s fresh milk, 1 tub cream, salt and pepper to taste.
Separate the lettuce leaves and wash well. Trim the spring onions and wash. Finely shred both and add to the melted butter in a saucepan. Cover and cook gently until the lettuce is very soft — about 15 minutes. Add the stock and milk, bring to the boil and simmer for another 15 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
When the soup has cooled down blitz it in a blender and refrigerate until very cold. Just before serving, stir in the cream, which has been in the freezer for 40 minutes. If it is starting to freeze, so much the better.