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Gem squash central – how to find them, how to grow them, how to eat them!


No doubt my non-South African readers are scratching their head and asking what the hell is a gem squash and why do we need a whole post dedicated to them. Well, let me tell you – it is probably the thing that South Africans abroad crave the most, and one of the more frustratingly unobtainable. In fact, when my half-sister emigrated to France in the 1970’s she missed gem squash so much that she smuggled a packet of seeds into France wth her and planted them in her garden there, just so that she could have a steady supply.  Biltong is made in most countries where Saffers congregate; to get boerewors, all you need is a good spice blend and a tame butcher to make it for you; and rooibos tea has practically conquered the world.  But gem squashes seem to be the holy grail for expat South Africans, judging by the deluge of comments that have followed my two previous posts on them.

So what is this mythical vegetable of which I speak?  Gem squash (similar – or possibly identical – to rolet squash, 8-ball squash or courgettes ronde) originated in Central America and belongs to the botanical genus Cucurbita, which includes melons (!) and can be subdivided into Cucurbita maxima (Hubbard squash and buttercup squash); Cucurbita mixta (cushaw squash); Cucurbita moschata (butternut squash); and Cucurbita pepo to which gem squashes belong, together with most pumpkins, acorn squash, marrows and cucumbers. More generally, though, squashes are categorised as summer or winter squash, which has little to do with their time of availability, but rather their time of harvesting and degree of maturity at harvesting. WInter squashes are generally left until the end of summer before they are harvested, making their skin tough and making it possible to store them for consumption at a later date. Summer squashes, on the other hand, are picked when they are still young and tender. They need little or no cooking (e.g. zucchini) but don’t keep as well as winter squashes. Included in this family would also be the wonderful pattypan squash (also called scallop squash) which was a staple food back home but not something I’ve seen generally available in UK supermarkets 🙁

Gem squash falls into the summer squash category, but I must say that the gem squashes vary greatly in terms of how thick their skin is – a function of how early or late they were picked. The ones we get in we get in South Africa (often sold by the roadside in 5 or 10kg bags, and sooooo cheap!) tend generally to be pretty thick-skinned and once cooked, hold their shape to form their own little biodegradable bowl. In the UK, however, they live up to their summer squash description and the skin is often soft enough to eat once cooked. In South Africa we also get baby gems – approximately the size of ping-pong balls and cooked in the blink of an eye. You just eat the whole thing, no mess, no fuss – and they are SO sweet and delicious.

So if the supermarkets don’t sell them, the only way forward is to grow your own.  Judging by the number of queries I have received, lots of expats want to know how to grow gem squash, so here is a little guide, collated from various websites and reader comments.

GROWING GEM SQUASH

HARVESTING GEM SQUASH

Harvest takes place in early Autumn.  If you are planning to keep the squashes for a while, the fruit is ripe and ready to be picked when the skin is too hard to pierce with your fingernails.  However, it is unlikely that you will get to this stage in the cool Northern Hemisphere (see below for the problem of powdery mildew), so probably better pick to pick them as soon as they approach the size of tennis balls (or even earlier), regardless of how soft the skin is. If growing Rolet F1 squash, UK reader Stephen Brosin says: “Rolet F1 , if left just a bit too long, gives a very fibrous squash not at all like a pukka Gem. When picked young, however, the Rolet F1 makes a very passable substitute and is most enjoyable”.

GEM SQUASH PESTS

The one problem that WILL arise wnhen growing gem squash (or butternuts, courgettes and cucumbers) in cool climates is powdery mildew, a fungus which strikes later in the growing season.  The growing season simply is not long enough and the onset of the cooler weather stresses the plants which makes them vulnerable to mildew for which there is no cure. To try and fight the onset of powdery mildew, readers have sent the following tips:

GEM SQUASH SEEDS

If you are lucky enough to have grown a mature crop of gem squash, then you can harvest seeds from the fruit before cooking and grow more next year.  Reader keith Meintjies has this advice: “To harvest the seeds: Leave the squash on the vine until the vines die back, or buy mature squash that are not all green but have a touch of yellow/orange colour on their skin. Halve the squash, and scoop out the seeds before cooking. Rinse the seeds to remove them from the squash strands. Dry the seeds at room temperature for a week or so, then store them in a resealable plastic bag or old plastic 35mm film cannister.”

GEM SQUASH NUTRITIONAL VALUE

The gem squash is low in calories and contains useful amounts of vitamin A and C, as well as iron, folate, potassium and niacin.

WHERE TO BUY GEM SQUASH & GEM SQUASH SEEDS

Depending on where you live, it may be possible to buy gem squash fruit, seedlings or seeds.  Here is a list of the places I have found and that readers have told me about to buy gem squash, Rolet squash, courgettes ronde, 8-ball squash or Tondo Chiaro di Nizza – if you know of others, please e-mail me or leave a comment and I will add them.

In the UK:

W Robinson & Sons (as Little Gem squash seeds)

Chiltern Seeds   (as Tondo Chiaro di Nizza seeds)

Mammoth Onion (as Little Gem squash seeds)

Moles Seeds (as Rolet squash seeds)

More Veg  (as Rolet squash seeds)

Nicky’s Nursery  (as Rolet squash seeds)

Vegetable Plants Direct  (as Rolet squash plants)

The fruit themselves are available from Waitrose, Borough Market in London (and probably other farmers’ markets), and sometimes the large branches of Tesco & Sainsbury’s.  They also crop up fairly often in the Abel & Cole and Riverford organic boxes.

In Australia:

http://www.thesouthafricanshop.com.au (as fruit, when in season)
Shop 7 & 8 Upper Level Templestowe Village
Shopping Centre,
112 James Street
Templestowe
VIC 3106

Hahndorf Vegetable Market near Adelaide (as fruit, when in season)

Southern Harvest (as gem squash seeds)

Satooz website (as gem squash seeds or fruit)

Springbok Foods (as gem squash fruit, Nov to Apr)

Diggers Club (as gem squash seeds)

In NZ:

www.kingsseeds.co.nz (will deliver to the UK)

The Farm Store Kerikeri
8 Hall Rd Kerikeri
New Zealand
ph 09 4077607
Gem Squash seedlings. $2.50 pot of three

In the USA:

Park Seeds (as similar  Eight Ball F1 squash)

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (as similar Tondo Scuro di Piacenza)

 

GEM SQUASH RECIPES

OK, I hear you ask, that’s all fine and well, but what do you do with a gem squash?

For more gem squash recipe inspiration, have a look at my dedicated Pinterest gem squash recipe board:

 

Follow Jeanne Horak-Druiff’s board Recipes | Gem squash on Pinterest.