Food Fit for an Emperor

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What do you see when I say 'cucumber'? Thin green slices, to put on your face and eyelids after a hard night out or a long day broiling on the beach? Thin green slices on thinly sliced bread, melting in your mouth at tea time? Thin green slices, tossed with lots of garlic and sour cream--the perfect accompaniment to a juicy schnitzel? Something green you wouldn’t dream of eating, no matter how it’s sliced, because it makes you burp for hours and hours?

Well, even if you belong to the anti-cuke league, read on. Because there are cucumbers that won’t make you burp, no matter how reluctant you are to believe it. That’s not all. The cucumber is a fruit (yes, a fruit) that’s been around for thousands of years, in the course of which it’s managed to have quite a tasty career.

The cucumber shot to stardom when the Emperor Tiberius (42 BC–37 AD) developed an insatiable appetite for it. Columella and Pliny the Elder, two ancient Romans who wrote on agriculture, gave the cucumber plenty of coverage in their books. They describe how the Imperial gardeners made sure that Tiberius had cucumbers every day of the year, even though they ripen naturally only in the summer. By taking the beds in which the cucumbers were planted and mounting them on wheels (imagine a kind of wheelbarrow), the gardeners could keep moving them around to follow the sun. During the cold months, they covered the cucumber beds with sheets of mica, a transparent stone (sheet glass had not yet been invented). The name given to this kind of neo-greenhouse is specularium.

Whether or not Tiberius was bored with the cucumber’s natural form, the gardeners soon hit on the brilliant idea that the cucumber could be forced to grow into all sorts of shapes, including that ‘of man or beast.’ All they had to do was wait until the cucumber shed its blossom and then enclose it in variously shaped wicker sheathes. The growing cucumber adapted itself to the form.

The gardeners must have experimented ceaselessly, not only to find new shapes but also to improve the flavour. They believed, for instance, that if the seeds were soaked in milk and honey before they were sown, the ripe cucumbers would be infinitely more tender and sweet.

The ancients also believed that women should have restricted access to places where cucumbers were planted. Their presence could retard the cucumbers’ growth. And worse, one glance from a menstruating woman was enough to kill the young plants!

The cucumber was found to have all kinds of curative properties, some of which are still appreciated today. A use was found even for the seeds, which the ancient Romans pressed into small tablets and administered to people with eye problems. In our own day and age, cucumber soap and cucumber lotion are a prized treatment for delicate skins and skin irritations. The smell of cucumber lotion, by the way, is heavenly.

For the longest time you could buy only two kinds of cucumbers here in Florence. The long slim kind, popularly known as the English cucumber, and the shorter field, or market, cucumber, which grows thick and yellow by the end of the summer. But a year or two ago I noticed some very odd-looking varieties of cucumbers arriving at the Sant’Ambrogio market during July and August. I was familiar with one that resembles a baby watermelon and is called a cuccumerazzo in Puglia. It is delicious, succulent and delicate, and can be eaten either in a salad or as fruit after the meal.

The Azienda Agricola Biologica Meo Maria sells several different kinds of cucumbers at Sant’Ambrogio. They go by the names of tortarello, pagnotella, cocuzella, meloncello and spuredda. I couldn’t say which one is my favourite: I eat them all with great gusto.

Last summer, after absentmindedly slicing white peaches into my cucumber salad, I discovered that my distraction had led me to concoct a ‘marriage made in heaven.’ The peaches must be of the white variety, however. Wash but do not peel these cucumbers; their peel actually helps the digestion. Season the cucumber-peach salad with salt, pepper and olive oil (no vinegar!).

Here’s a final tip. If at the end of the summer someone regales you with a few overgrown field cucumbers, full of unappetizing seeds, don’t despair. They can still be turned into a delicious dish, good hot or cold. Peel them. Cut them in half lengthwise. Scoop out all the seeds, leaving a big trench. Heap ground meat, prepared as you would for meat loaf, into one of the trenches. Put the two halves back together and tie with string. Brown the cucumber in a pan with olive oil, salt and pepper, and cook it gently until the meat is done. Add some liquid if necessary. To serve, untie the string and slice. You can also stir fry pieces of the peeled and de-seeded cucumber. Cook until nearly translucent. Delicious!

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This page last updated: July 27, 2007.