The word pumpkin conjures up fields of orange, jack o’ lanterns and Halloween. Mention squash and one thinks of a winter food. In reality, the Cucurbita family of plants is home to pumpkins, squash, zucchini, luffas, gourds, watermelons, cucumbers and more. This is a large family of plants that can provide us food all year. Zucchini and cucumbers are enjoyed in early summer, water melons, honey-do melons and cantaloupe in late summer, and pumpkins in the fall. Many varieties of squash are easily stored and are make a versatile food source for the fall and spring.
La zucca did not originate in Italy. Many countries claim this title including India and Mexico. In early Roman times the philosopher Pliny called them “a cure-all, comfort for every problem”. During the Middle Ages they became popular in soups and as a meat substitute during Lent. In the Este court of Ferrara they made a pasta with pumpkin filling called cappellacci. It remains a popular dish to this day.
Roman and medieval squashes were rather different from the varieties one finds in Italy today. Christopher Columbus brought the large, sweet Cucurbita Maxima and Moschata back with him to Italy. Squashes were even more popular with the poor because they were easy to grow and versatile to use. One can make use of every part of a squash, including the seeds. They are easily turned into soups, pasta and risottos.
The fruit is most often used as a food source, but the usefulness of the zucca does not end there. Gourds have a very hard shell and can be hollowed out and used as containers. Zucca flowers are now considered a delicacy but their early use in Italy was that of “cucina povera”, a peasant food. They can be used in salads, or more commonly they are made into fried fritters. A traditional Roman way of preparation is stuffed with cheese and anchovies, battered then fried.
Unlike some other foods brought back from the Americas, squash did not become as widespread as tomatoes and potatoes. Although gourds or their flowers crop up as an ingredient in dishes throughout Italy, their use was, and remains limited to some specific areas. In the North, along the Po river the soil is particularly suited to growing pumpkin and squash. The zucca became a staple in the area, particularly in the regions of Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia. Here squash becomes the star of gnocchi and risotto.
Some parts of Southern Italy, Campania, Puglia and Sicily, also have a rich squash growing and eating tradition to rival with the North. Across the length of Italy, pumpkin seeds are toasted, salted and eaten as a snack, a recipe that has remained virtually the same since Roman times.
Just make sure don’t call anyone a pumpkin while you are in Italy. Far from being an endearment, "zucca" (but also zuccone, big pumpkin, or testa di zucca, pumpkin head) is slang for stupid.
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