I know cucumbers can be a bit ‘whatever.’ I mean, I could go my whole life never missing them. And yet they are fresh and summery and lend themselves beautifully to cold soups as well as interesting herbal combinations. They like a bit of salt and lemon. I can’t work out why so many recipes ask for cucumbers to be peeled and de-seeded. What’s left? Thankfully, the recipe I’m using here is less prissy and allows you to chuck the whole thing into the blender. Which is good because you really get the essence of cucumber – light but with a herbaceous edge – and the seeds are what creates a lot of the juice.
My first memory of cucumbers was in Crete as a child. We were staying with a Greek family. I developed a crush on the son, who was a teenager called Vazeles. I thought he was very sophisticated because he drank his tea with a spoon. I spoke to him in fake Greek a lot and he smiled politely and continued about his business. The thing I remember most though was that whenever I entered the dining room, which was where the whole family congregated, the grandmother would start peeling a cucumber into the fire. She laughed – actually, she cackled – and so did everyone else, including my mother. I have to say, as a child, I couldn’t see the funny side. Even now it seems a bit disturbing; the insinuation was that this act was in some way sexual which was why everyone found it funny. Anyway, if anyone reading this knows of a Greek custom where old ladies start to peel cucumbers into the fire whenever a small child enters, I’d love to hear from you.
I can’t remember where those cucumbers ended up – I mean, in what dish – although it’s fair to surmise it was probably for a Tzatziki, a popular Greek dip made with strained yoghurt, cucumbers, lemon, salt and dill or parsley; a choppier and breadless version of cucumber gazpacho.
If you’re using thick-skinned cucumbers, by which I mean your standard, long, dark green cukes, you may want to peel them as they will have a tougher hide, and may have been waxed. I used thin-skinned Persian cucumbers here, because that’s what I found at the farmers’ market. They’re smaller, but taste the same – in other words, like a cucumber.
The garlic is non-negotiable in my opinion. I really don’t think gazpacho works without it, but you can play around with the intensity. I think three cloves gives you enough of a heady sensation without feeling you’ve been garlic-snorkelling. It’s the cleanness of the cucumber and the sulphurous hit of the garlic that is the key to this dish, so be brave. Stale white bread is a central component of a traditional Spanish gazpacho, and will give the soup a ‘thick cream’ texture. If you use it, I would strain the soup into a bowl before chilling, to remove any rough bits.
As for which herbs to use, mint is traditional, and lovely. Sorrel is less common, and a good reason to experiment. It is a perfect time of year for it. For a spring leaf, it’s incredibly juicy, lemony and refreshing. Can a leaf be creamy? Strangely yes. I hope I’ve piqued your interest.
3 large cucumbers or 6-7 small ones
A small handful of mint or sorrel leaves, stems removed
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 tbs extra virgin olive oil – or a couple of very hearty glugs
A squeeze of lemon
1 cup (½ pint) of plain, Greek yoghurt
Optional: A couple of handfuls of stale, white bread, torn up, with crusts removed
I have deliberately kept the amounts quite loose, as this is where feel and taste rule. Coarsely chop the cucumbers – peel them first if you think the skin looks a bit tough – and put them in a blender. Add the crushed garlic, a pinch of sea salt, the olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, the yoghurt and the stale bread (if using) and puree to a wet pulp. You may have to do this in batches depending on the size of your blender.
Take the smoothness as far as you like – silk soup is very pleasing, some like a rougher texture, but I would strain the mixture through a sieve if you’re using the bread. Cover the bowl and chill thoroughly. Go almost to icicles. To serve, season the soup again. Remember that chilling dulls the flavour. Add a streak of yoghurt and strew with the herbs. Drop in some herb-flecked ice cubes for some shock and awe.
Originating in the Himalayan foothills, the wild cucumber is hideously bitter by nature. It has taken centuries of breeding to make it edible. It is a member of the Cucurbit family, to which the melon and winter and summer squash also belongs. It is a fruit.