It has a greyish green peel and is shaped like a turban. An orange, compact pulp and a sweet flavour. Of course, we are referring to the Mantua pumpkin which belongs to the large vegetable family which lends itself to so many different recipes and is endowed with a great symbolic value. Mantua province in the north of Italy is one of the most important production areas of this colourful Autumn fruit which plays an important role in Italian everyday menus starting from the end of October.
What is Mantua Pumpkin?
Many pumpkin cultivars are grown in various parts of Italy, from the Marina of Chioggia to the Americana and the Violino, but the most characteristic is that of Mantua, called Cappello del Prete (the Priest’s hat). Some pumpkin varieties were beginning to disappear, ousted by more economical products. Fortunately, producers have pooled their efforts to save the Zucca Mantovana – which has now been acknowledged as a Prodotto Agroalimentari Tradizionale (PAT) (Italian Certificate for Traditional Agri-Foodstuffs) – and to prevent its precious genetic heritage from being lost.
You may be wondering how the Cappello del Prete (Cucurbita Maxima) differs from other pumpkins. First and foremost, it is characterized by a turban shape and a sweet pulp. It may vary in size and weigh from 1 to 5 kilograms. Like all other varieties, this pumpkin is low in calories and has a 94% water content but is rich in potassium, magnesium and vitamins.
The history of Mantua Pumpkin
Pumpkins were initially grown thousands of years ago in Asia. They were first brought to Europe from America in the wake of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the new continent. Ever since the XVI century, it has been part of the Old Continent’s diet and is believed to bring good fortune, with its symbolic and ritualistic associations, such as the pumpkins of Halloween which hark back to an ancient Irish legend.
To grow pumpkins, all you need is sunshine, fertilizer and water. They are able to withstand drought, disease and insects. Sowing takes place in April or May, and may even go on until June. The seeds are planted in small holes in groups of three or five. After little more than a month, the seedlings are transplanted and positioned 2-3 metres from each other. But when is the right time to harvest the mature fruits? Between September and October, when the leaves wither and the stems become dry, the pumpkins are ready to be picked. Not all of the pumpkins – each plant produces up to 4 of them – ripen at the same time. However, they must be harvested before the frost sets in because pumpkins suffer when the temperature falls below 10°C. Otherwise, they will not go to waste if left in the garden: the sun will continue to ripen them and sweeten their sugary pulp.
How to cook Mantua Pumpkin
The pumpkin’s delicately sweet pulp makes it suitable for use in a wide range of recipes, from starters to desserts. It may be fried, roasted, steamed or grilled: there are umpteen ways to cook it. Nothing gets thrown away, either, because even the peel and seeds can be put to good use. The flowers can be fried in batter and the seeds may be roasted and salted for serving as excellent nibbles with a drink. When mashed it appears in risotto or as a filling for the famous pumpkin tortelli, the most celebrated speciality of Mantua’s cuisine. In the past, tortelli only used to be eaten on important festivities: it was believed that they brought good luck.
Its sweet aromatic flavour makes pumpkin an ideal ingredient to use in combination with fatty cheeses, such as gorgonzola and brie, or spreading cheese like ricotta; with assertively flavoured fish like smoked salmon, salt cod and molluscs; with tasty meat dishes such as stews and cold cuts. Last but not least, it makes a perfect match for grains and polenta. What about the wine? Those who choose to pair it with a fresh dry Lambrusco from the Mantua area will certainly not be disappointed.