About now my greenhouse becomes less vegetable power house and more storage depot.
Those big pumpkins on the floor are ‘Rouge Vif d’Etampes’ – known affectionately as Cinderella pumpkins, and you can see why. Pumpkins in fairy tales look just like this: deep orange, perfectly rounded but flattened top and bottom, with deep valleyed ridges pleating the sides.
You can just imagine them sitting plump and stately on a set of four wheels pulled daintily by white horses with sparkly plumes in their manes (I have daughters: I know what I’m talking about here).
Pumpkins in real life – the grotesquely obese ones like the one grown by the Paton twins which has just smashed the UK record at a whopping 1,884 lbs – are more the Jabba the Hut end of fantasy storytelling.
I’m also drying off my small but multitudinous collection of butternut squashes in the greenhouse out of the rain. They didn’t do brilliantly on the size front but I’ve got quite a few so it didn’t matter too much. They’ll be in here for two weeks or so before transferring to the shed for winter.
This month has been something of an exercise in the virtues of waiting for nature to take its course. In this same greenhouse (on the left) are growing some fine sweet peppers: the new ‘Snackbite Red’ variety which I’m trying out this year.
The idea is that they’re mini-peppers, about 7-10cm long when fully developed, and just the right size for popping in the kids’ lunch boxes. If that fills you with scepticism – most eight-year-olds wouldn’t touch a sweet pepper if it was stuffed with Haribos – then take a taste test: these are popping with flavour, sweet and rich and utterly unlike the frankly tasteless by comparison blocky sweet peppers you usually buy.
But to get the full effect, you have to wait. We were too quick off the mark and picked the first peppers while they were still green: big mistake. Slightly on the bitter side, very little flavour to speak of, thin walled and very disappointing.
I thought I had a dud on my hands, until I forgot about them for a month or two and then discovered the fruits had matured to their proper shade of traffic light red while I wasn’t looking. They were a different prospect altogether: ah, that’s why you grow them, I thought.
The same goes for my pride and joy, the tree chilli (also known as a Rocoto chilli) now in its second year in greenhouse no. 2 and towering well over my head. Goodness knows what it’s going to do next year if it makes it into a third year: I’m going to have to get one of those greenhouse extensions like the one they were considering at the Temperate House at Kew to accommodate their Jubaea chilensis, the tallest palm in the world.
It’s absolutely laden with chillies – enough to keep us in spicy food from now till next summer. I’m giving them away by the basketful to chilli-head friends, too. But I’m being careful to wait until they’re good and ready before I pick them.
The heat of chillies – that is, the capsaicin content – develops and increases as the fruit ripen. So if you pick your chillies green, they will be very mild: so much so, in fact, that you might as well add green sweet peppers to your food (you’ll get a better flavour, too).
Rocoto chillies conveniently change colour as they ripen, giving you a kind of paint-by-numbers guide to how hot they are as they go.
First the green blackens to a sort of purplish colour. Then an orange blush creeps across the fruit; these are medium-hot, and rather nice if you’re not too keen on blistering your mouth while eating.
But for the real full-blast heat it’s worth waiting, and waiting, and waiting until your chillies are brilliant, shiny, beautiful red.
It’s a bit of a game of chicken against the first frosts, which will clobber your tree chilli to bare stalks even inside a cool greenhouse. But it’s worth the risk. Fully red rocoto chillies are what the hubster calls ‘pokey’ (and he’s a bit of a chilli head so knows what he’s on about).
Officially rocotos rank about 50,000 SHU (that’s Scoville Heat Units) – about the heat of a good top-of-the-range Cayenne. But let that deep, glowing red develop to the full and you’re talking up to 250,000: that’s nudging a Habanero. You see? It’s true. Good things – or at least, very hot things – come to those who wait.