“A cucumber should be well-sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.” – Samuel Johnson
While I wouldn’t go so far as to say the cucumber is good for nothing, I will admit that it took me a long time to find a point in it being around. Growing up in the north of England in the ‘70s, I will also admit that it was the only vegetable that I ate that didn’t come out of a can, so perhaps it took on a demonic role it never really deserved. But apart from adding the slightest crunch to a ham sandwich, I never had any real use for it. But my mistake was to treat it as a food – cucumber’s real purpose lies in what it adds to the world of cocktails.
And we’ll get to that. But first… a little background…
The cucumber originates in India and has been cultivated for at least 3,000 years. It was introduced to Europe either by the Greeks, the Romans, or some combination of the two, making its way up to and through France in the 9th Century, then up into England about 500 years later. By the 16th Century it had crossed the ocean and landed in North America where, in 1535, Jacques Cartier found “very great cucumbers” growing on the site of what is now Montreal. It spread across the great plains of America, and down into Central and South America, after members of the Mandan and the Abenaki tribes were exposed to it while trading with Spanish explorers.
It did go out of fashion for a while in the late 17th Century as a prejudice developed against eating uncooked fruits and vegetables. For a time it was described as “fit only for consumption by cows” which resulted in it gaining the nickname cowcumber.
Technically the cucumber is part of the sufficiently-chilling category of “creeping vine” and can be classified as a pepo – “a botanical berry with a hard outer rind and no internal divisions”. It’s about 90% water, which is why you can add it to drinks and only slightly affect the overall flavour, and the rumour is it takes more calories to eat than it actually contains, so you lose weight as you eat it.
While the most common variety for us in the west is the green, long, slightly-suggestive version most of us are familiar with, there are many different regional variations:
- Indian cucumbers, or dosakai, are round and yellow.
- Lebanese cucumbers are small, smooth-skinned and mild, yet with a distinct flavor and aroma, and like the English cucumber, they are nearly seedless.
- East Asian cucumbers are mild, slender, deep green, and have a bumpy, ridged skin.
- Persian cucumbers are mini – on average 4-7 inches long, seedless, and slightly-sweet, on average 4–7 in. long. They are commonly eaten chopped up in plain yogurt with mint or sliced thin and long with salt and lemon juice.
- Beit Alpha cucumbers are small, sweet parthenocarpic cucumbers adapted to the dry climate of the Middle East.
- Apple cucumbers are short, round cucumbers grown in New Zealand and parts of Europe, known for their light yellow-green color and mildly sweet flavor. When mature, the fruit may grow tiny spines, and contains numerous edible green seeds.
- Schälgurken are eaten in Germany. Their thick skins are peeled and then the flesh is braised or fried, often with minced meat or dill. They are often known by the term ‘Schmorgurken’.
- Kekiri is a smooth skinned cucumber found in the dry zone of Sri Lanka. It is relatively hard, and not used for salads, but is cooked as spicy curry. It becomes orange when the fruit is matured.
- In May 2008, British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s unveiled the ‘c-thru-cumber’, a thin-skinned variety that reportedly does not require peeling.
- Armenian cucumbers, also known as yard long cucumbers, have very long, ribbed fruit with a thin skin that does not require peeling, but are actually an immature melon. This is the variety sold in Middle Eastern markets as “pickled wild cucumber”.
And as if the flavourful benefits that come from adding cucumber to your cocktail repertoire aren’t enough, what other benefits might it have? Well, since you asked… You can use it to treat a scorpion bite. You can eat it to help with your eyesight or use it to get rid of the bags under your eyes that you got from staying up drinking cocktails until far far too late. You can put it against the roof of your mouth to get rid of bad breath, or you can scatter it on the floor around your house to get rid of mice. But my favourite use has to be for women hoping to get pregnant: YOU have the privilege of getting to tie a number of cucumbers to a belt and then wear that contraption around your waist – apparently that’s all you’ve been needing, FERTILITY TREATMENTS BE DAMNED!!
But now on to the real reason we’re here – the cocktails. I’ve always found that adding cucumber to a drink adds an underlying “freshness”, a cleanness. It plays well with most spirits, I’ve got recipes that have it with gin, mezcal, rum, and tequila. It can be a little bit peppery and a little vegetal but mainly it’s just there to add a cool refreshing background to whatever drink it finds itself in. It doesn’t do well at the front of the drink – in other words you don’t want it to be the flavour you’re left with, but if you can balance it, it can really bring out the best even in the small-time players like absinthe or St. Germain.
However you use it, it’ll take you back to sitting outside. In the shade. On the grass. Feeling good. About. Everything.
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