Tag Archives: giant pumpkins

Paddling Pumpkins in Kasterlee, Belgium

A pumpkin regatta is something to behold.  Since very few life skills seem to transfer to paddling a pumpkin, the experience might best be described as character building. I crossed Europe in seach of the pumpkin adventures of the Flanders region in Belgium. In the process, I was humbled by their passion for pumpkin, and what the people inspired in me.

I learned of the Kasterlee regatta while in Italy.  It seemed like a very long way to go so to see pumpkins, but something drew me to witness this event.  Soon after learning of it, I found myself justifying my potential trans-Europe journey, as well as the supporting thought process, to virtual strangers.  I was getting a bit defensive. Why wouldn’t I cross four countries so to watch pumkins filled with people bob like apples?  What seemed like the most compelling argument, ended up being about Belgians themselves.  Often thought of as quiet and conservative by their neighbors, who knew that the Belgians of Flanders, would lovingly hollow out giant pumpkins, dress in funny costumes, then be rather impressive competitors?  They even train for it. It made even the most skeptic listener nod in agreement.  It just might be something to see, and perhaps they might join me.  The Italians were even a bit jealous that this regatta would pull me away from their own festivals.  I vowed to return to Italy, but for now, I was making the trip very far North from Naples to Ludwigsburg, then onwards to Antwerpen, and finally, Kasterlee.

It seemed that we all wanted to see Belgians tuck themselves neatly into cucurbits, then paddle like mad.  It also appeared I had discovered a secret Belgian lifestyle that the world did not yet know about.  I was going, period.

This event would complete a month long celebration in Kasterlee.  Previous to this, there were farm tours, pumpkin themed menus, and more.  A website featured toddlers playing among giant, still on the vine, pumpkins, in a magical scene straight out of storybooks.

Belgium is also a global contender for giant pumpkin growing.  They are frequently #1 in Europe, receiving the award in Ludwigsburg, Germany.  This just happened to be one of those years.  The “big boys” of pumpkins had headed out of Ludwigsburg one week prior to my visit there.  These pumpkins were taken on tour, and also back home for local celebrations.  I was happy to find myself face-to-pumpkin with the European champion right there at the regatta.  Sitting beside it on the flatbed trailer was the record holding squash. I got goosebumps, as this alone would justify the journey as “pumpkin research.”

Yes, research.  It was all in the name of research.  Someone had to collect these experiences, make note of these cultural traditions.  It might as well be me.   I could share this information, and in the process inspire others to “up their pumpkin game.” Why not stir up a bit of squash rivalry between the European nations, as well as with the rival US pumpkin growers “across the pond.”

Arriving at the regatta was a little more challenging than I expected.  Being held in a tiny pond, at 9:30 am, on a Sunday, in a small village, next to Kasterlee made the whole experience memorable.  Let’s just say, that by the end of the day, I walked over 3 hours to take me to and from the event.  I navigated busses, trains, and walked a long way to be there.  I am a big fan of struggling a bit for such experiences.  It clears my mind, and makes me realize just how much passion and drive I have in me.  So I walked…and walked some more.

The wonderful thing about walking, is that it allows me to spy into the late Autumn gardens.  It had dropped to below one degree celsius, in Belgium, and now the cold was joined by a powerful wind.  A brisk walk was welcomed.  I watched the frost melt along the way. It was a powerful change from Southern Italy, or from my home in Hawaii.  I reminded myself to enjoy it.

I was beginning to question if I had read the map right.  I was getting a bit worried that I would miss this “outside of the town” pond.  Then, I saw the first of many handpainted signs that would direct me to this special little place.  I would find it.  That alone inspired my walk that had turned into a hike.

By the time I reached the regatta, I realized that I was walking with enough confidence, that others thought I knew where I was going.  I turned around to find a small group of couples, children and their parents, and even a few farm dogs walking behind me.  I was guilty of pretending to understand Dutch, by nodding, and pointing at the signs, and striding onwards.    Eventually, we saw that a field was filled with cars, and the distant mumble of a voice on a mega phone could be heard.  We had arrived.

I know what I was expecting, I was planning on seeing the races.  The struggle of competition.  Silly costumes, and rivals.  Instead, I found beauty.  I found stillness, light, poetic movements, and sculpture.  I saw a surreal play of light, and form.  I did not see that coming, but the regatta seemed like a dreamscape to me.  It was the calm and quiet that inspired me to continue to stand with wet boots at the edge of the water, for hours. It was the way that the pumpkins themselves looked more like sculpture than boats. They were already unique natural forms, and with the creative hands of the villagers, they were transformed into something else.  I was smitten.

Maybe it was the long hike, the cold, the exhaustion, but the tranquillity drew me more than the competition.  It was the event helpers, all were local kayakers, that stood in knee, or waist deep water, that became my focus.  For hours, they turned these giant forms, and spun them across the light that was dancing on water. I was reminded of the poetry of man and nature.

The races were won and lost, the families gathered, cheered, and celebrated.  I was calm and quiet and contemplative.  More than anything, I was grateful that this event, of all places, could return me to a quieter side of myself.  Travel does that, if you let it.  It can shake loose bits of ourselves that get lost in the day-to-day.  So to the people of Kasterlee, thank you.  Your dedication to your craft, reminded me of my own.  That is a gift that I will remember you for.  To the people of Flanders, dank u zeer.

Transforming the Giants

In Ludwigsburg Germany, the home of the European Giant Pumpkin Championship, one might think that the competition is simply “winner takes all,” but think again. These other giants undergo a transformation that will leave you speechless.

DSC_0789I had planned to arrive at Bluhendes Barock, this past Sunday, to watch international sculptors transform giant pumpkins into works of art, but I just couldn’t wait.  I decided to go to the festival a day early, so to visit the selected pumpkins before they were paired with an artist.

I wasn’t the only one with this strategy.  These now accessable giant pumpkins were set out in the gardens, offering a perfect photo opportunity for admiring fans.  The pumpkin growers had elected to donate these giant pumpkins for the artists to work with. A fair amout of diversity was represented in the pumpkins themselves, both in their genetics, and from where they came from.  The invited artists also came from many different locations: France, Germany, Switzerland and Russia were all represented.

On Sunday, I walked through the leaf filled paths of the Bluhendes Barock gardens, to see the sculptors at work. I quietly admired the athletic actions of these sculptors. They would have only one day to complete these monumental works, so every minute would count.  As much as I tried to stay quiet, several of the artists noticed that my admiration exceeded that of most visitors.  Perhaps it was the fact that I took over 100 photos, and I continued to watch for hours.   I was fortunate that several of the artists offered me some of their precious work time so to welcome me, and gave me an inside look at what it takes to be a pumpkin sculptor.  I passed them my business card, filled with images of pumpkins, and instant friendships were made. I told them that I was visiting them from Hawaii, and that it was well worth the trip.

Jeroen van de Vlag of Siebnen, Switzerland, spoke to me about the sand sculptures that decorated the palace grounds, as well as the pumpkin creature he was currently carving. He had created some of the elaborate sand sculptures in the formal palace gardens, back in July.  I had marveled at them the day before, and now, even more so, after learning that they had already been outdoors, on display, for three full months of autumn weather.  The day prior, I had admired the pumpkin sculpture, but I did not immediately recognize that it was made of sand.  What initally caught my eye, was the collection of Long Island Cheese, and Crown pumpkins that decorated the base, then I noticed that the pumpkin sculpture was not cast, but rather an ephemeral work of sand.

Jeroen and I spoke about his life as a travelling sculptor, of ice, fruit, and of sand, before he returned to work on his design. Earlier in the day, a little boy asked the name of his pumpkin creature, and Jeroen named the creature after the little boy. In the process, perhaps another pumpkin sculptor was born.

The work of Jeroen van de Vlag, of Siebnen, Switzerland

I moved on to the next sculpture, as the artist, Larissa Bohrkircher, worked intensely on a very different pumpkin face.  As she worked, visitors noticibly cheered her on.  She worked on a pumpkin which clearly reflected this year’s festival theme of “the forest.”

I took a good look at the tools of the trade, as well as the different techniques the artists were using to make these reductive sculptures.  I saw various knives, exacto blades, pruning saws, and also sculpting tools normally used in ceramics.  Because of the scale, I also noticed a shovel, pitchfork, and the large bin, containing what was cleaned out of the pumpkins earlier that day. The names of the pumpkin growers were also on display, for they had generously donated their farm treasures for all to enjoy

I have to admit, I wanted to get in on the action, especially after a delightful exchange with Galina Faletra, a Russian born artist, who now resides, and carves in nearby Stuttgart. She was working on a large creature who made everyone smile.  She explained to me that she had a new baby, indicating towards the happy face in the nearby stroller. This busy mom did double duty, caring for her baby, as she sculpted a pumpkin creature. I had to smile, thinking that her child will have incredibly high expectations for their Halloween decorations in the years ahead, and I am sure Galina will lovingly exceed those wishes.

Then I saw another crowd gathering as a lanky, contemplative artist returned to her work.  She studied the movement of a dragon that curled around the giant pumpkin.  She stood back for a good, long look, before stepping in to further reduce the form.  As the light played with the shadows, she seemed to be judging how best to bring this dragon into the late afternoon light. Corina Lampropoulos was in her zone.

When viewing sculpture, all sides are considered, and Corina was working on bringing the tail of the dragon into focus.  Many viewers were happy to see the unexpected dragon pumpkin.  I heard the German word for dragon, drachen, said with delight.  I immediately liked this artist’s style,  as she created the unexpected with an athleticism mixed with grace.

A man stopped by to comment on Corina’s successful sculpture.  I gathered from the pumpkin cuttings that covered him from head to toe, that he must be the artist from France, Benoit Dutherage.  They posed for a few photos before both artists returned to thier pumpkins.  Several of the people I met that day had mentioned that I should meet Dutherage.  He had worked hard to get his sculpture near completion, before stepping away.  He was now returning, with “fresh eyes” to complete his work.  Benoit displayed a photo of a sleeping infant, that was now also seen carved before us.

Benoit Dutherage, at the completion of his sculpture

The scale of Dutherage’s work was impressive.  It wasn’t until he returned to his sculpture that you fully appreciated the monumental work.  You could now see how huge the pumpkin was, when compared to a full grown man.  He stepped forward to speak to me about sculpture, contests, and the challenges of creating large scale work within one day.  We spoke of inspiration, style, and artistic expression before he excused himself so to change his clothes before the judging.  I tried to convice him otherwise, as I thought the sculptor’s clothing told a story.

The day’s work was clearly seen on the clothes of Benoit Dutherage of France

As Dutherage stepped away, so did I, because it was judging time, and I felt that it was best to be impartial.  Each of these artists had shared a bit of themselves with me today, and I respected each of them, and their works.  I did not have a favorite, but was inspired by all.  As I returned to the pumpkin carving garden, the announcer climbed above the crowd to announce the winners.  The crowd hushed so to hear the results. Larissa Bohrkircher’s name was announced as the 2018 sculpture winner.  She smiled, blushed, and waved to the fans.


I congratulated Larissa, as she offered a broad smile and a thank you.  The crowds gathered again, to photograph her and her work.  I was pleased to watch as the artists congratulated, and complemented each other’s work.  It was clear that they were supportive of each other. I offered my own words of praise to the artists before I left. We exchanged waves, and handshakes, and kisses on both cheeks.  As I walked away, I was given the opportunity to collect three giant pumpkin seeds for a friend. For me, as a grower, the action had even a greater significance.  This sharing of seeds was the perfect way to share the creativity, magic, and inspiration that transpired that day.

A Palace for Pumpkins

In the formal gardens of a castle in Ludwigsburg, Germany, lies a pumpkin festival fit for royalty. Come along as I explore the details that make this event one of the best in the world…


For two years, Ludwigsburg has been on my mind.  I first discovered the event while searching online for the pumpkin events of Europe. Long ago, I took a German 1 class in Switzerland, and it was there that my very first word in Deutsch was kurbis, or pumpkin. Six years later, pumpkin would change my life, and perhaps rule my world.  So that night in 2016, I searched online for kurbis, and struck gold.


As a pumpkin grower, with a great love of pumpkin biodiversity, pumpkin artistry, and all of the culinary aspects of squash, the event was like a dream.  Unfortunately, my 2016 journey was postponed due to an airline strike, which left me crying in the Venice airport.  I remained mad at the airlines for quite some time, sulking over the loss of my pumpkin party.  My reaction illuminated just how much I wanted to attend this event, and I vowed to try again.

When I returned to Italy this year as a Slow Food Terra Madre delegate, I made the pact with myself that I would go to Ludwigsburg, and this time by train.  My transit from Naples to Ludwigsburg took 13.5 hours, and it was the very best decision I could have made.   It was a test of dedication. The train wound it’s way through Rome, Florence, Bologna, Innsbruck, Munich, Stuttgart, and finally arriving at my destination. The train had stunning vistas all around, and I was content to simply gaze at the landscape as my seat mate, and I spoke of our travels. As I neared Ludwigsburg, I was noticeably giddy.


The festival runs from September, through the first weekend in November.  There are special featured events on each weekend:  a pumpkin regatta, German giant pumpkin competition, the all Europe giant pumpkin competition, carving competitions, a weekend of kurbis (pumpkin) soup making, and ending with smashing pumpkins, where crowds gather to crush the giant pumpkins.


Each weekend offered something special, and ongoing large scale pumpkin sculptures are on display for the duration of the event.  There is also an extensive pumpkin menu served throughout the grounds.  I’ll be returning tomorrow, to view the special carving competition, where artists carve the non winning giant pumpkins.  I’ll also make a dedicated effort to work my way through the kurbis menu.




The Return of the Waimea Farm Fair

After 20 years, the Waimea farm fair returned this year.  Expanding on the giant pumpkin growing contest of years past, this year brought tomato tasting and pumpkin cooking elements as well. I may max out at a 45lb squash, so no “giants” for me, but I do love to celebrate with the growers.  It is a squash solidarity.  You do not understand patience until you grow squash in Hawaii.

All beautiful and worthy contenders  Pumpkin and squash can be tricky here and Hawaii, and our giants can vary by hundreds of pounds from season to season.  But that isn’t the point, the point is that community gathered to celebrate nature, ambition, and the pure dedication that it takes.  HPA school entered three very different pumpkins that helped to illuminate how different pumpkins from the same patch can be.  The Largest at rear of photo took 1st in the school garden category) Soil maverick and giant pumpkin grower Noah Dodd led the way for HPA by using his own unique soil microbe building methods to get the squash to grow to super sized proportions.

Donna Mitts and prize winner Myrtle
Donna Mitts and prize winner Myrtle

I know and respect organic grower Donna Mitts, who has been giving me updates throughout the season. ( see image above) Her squash was golden and beautiful, and very deserving of the attention that it got.  She named the squash Myrtle, and it grew into it’s name.

Future grower Baby Max

Baby Max showed the enthusiasm that we all felt.  Here Max celebrates Donna’s pumpkin. Council woman Margaret Wille joined Donna Mitts and myself in a photo among the giant pumpkins.  Chefs and home cooks alike marveled at the culinary possibilities.

The Winters Ohana shined

Young Kawika Winters himself weighed in at only 1/2 a pound more than the giant pumpkin that he grew.  Here he awaits the judging  flanked by the other contenders.

Donna Mitts grew "Myrtle" organically
Donna Mitts grew “Myrtle” organically

Ribbons were awarded in many categories, including record keeping for the school gardeners.  How wonderful to reward a quieter, but valuable dedication. Mala’ai School garden won the record keeping prize by creating a beautiful photo log that captured the season. http://www.malaai.org

Cooking Contest

After the celebrations for giant pumpkins, we moved on over to the tomato tasting and pumpkin cooking competition.

tomato tasting station

The tomato judging begins

As the judging took place, many of us marveled at the challenges of comparing the beautiful island grown produce.  We were very happy to see some of our islands best including the innovative Chef Sandy that were part of the judging crew.

Ice cold pumpkin juice
refreshing pumpkin juice

Then more talk of pumpkins.  Donna Mitts wore many hats throughout the event including making the wonderful and refreshing “Pumpkin Juice” that cooled us under the hot Waimea sun.  She used pumpkin puree, apple juice and pumpkin pie spice to make this welcomed treat.  Then came the judging of the pumpkin cooking contest.  Many of us were nervous as the judges buzzed around through plate after plate of homemade, beautiful food.  There were three categories, including Main course, desert, and misc category.  Pumpkin butter, pumpkin curry, pumpkin tortellini, pumpkin nut bread, pumpkin casserole, pumpkin chiffon pie, pumpkin crumble, and my dish Pumpkin Noodle Nut.

My Pumpkin Noodle Nut dish
My entry in the line up

I am not sure why I was nervous with such a wonderful mix of people celebrating food.  But when farmer/organizer Paul Johnson and the judges gave the “all clear sign” that the crowd could sample all things squash, my tension eased, as we laughed and nibbled the plates clean.

Storming the table after judging
Guilty! We pounced on the table.

I mean we really went for it.  Each dish was special, and made with love.  We celebrated local ingredients and family recipes.

Paul reappeared as a wizard

Paul was a good sport, and surprised us all by reappearing in costume.  The kids loved it!

Clean plate club and 2nd place ribbon
A clean plate, a red ribbon, and the recipe to share

Then the prizes were announced by category. I would not have been a very good judge, because, each one was so wonderful.  It was like picking puppies or kittens.  The unique dishes were creative and flavorful, and many were very nutritious as well.

I took a risk by entering a brand new recipe to the contest.  I wanted to showcase squash as much as possible in one dish.  I had made a gluten free, vegan recipe called noodle nut last year.  After meeting with Chef Stephen of Under the Bodhi Tree restaurant in the shops of Mauna Lani http://www.underthebodhi.net  I was inspired to try new things.  So I changed my existing recipe to include cooked pumpkin puree, ground toasted pumpkin seeds, and grated fresh pumpkin.  Chef Stephen does raw and vegan entrees, and also loves to use pumpkin seed.  Pumpkin is so versatile, so I thought…heck go for it, this is the only pumpkin contest we have ever had on the island, so I thought it is time to pull out all of the stops.

So just a day before the contest, I was revamping and “pushing the pumpkin” into the recipe, and I am so glad I did.  Using all gluten free and vegan ingredients, my home grown black pumpkins, home grown cayenne chili peppers, Pat Hall’s aquaponic grown green onions, and local macadamia nuts.  It was an island proud dish.  The empty dish says it all.  It was cleaned out and awarded a 2nd place ribbon in the main dish category. Third went to the lovely pumpkin curry, and first place went to one of our island’s best chefs, Executive chef James Babian.  Chef Babian was the Executive chef of the Four Seasons resort here on the Big Island.  He can be credited with helping to move the buy local movement here over a decade ago.  He makes his own pasta from scratch in the kitchen of the restaurant that he and his wife Christine created in Waikoloa village named Pueo’s Osteria. http://www.pueososteria.com   Go there, trust me.

Let’s just say if anyone deserves first place, I have to say it is him.  I managed to get one lone tortellini off the plate before the other tasters descended.  It was divine, and sort of melted in your mouth.  I feel lucky to have gotten one, and no, I have no photos, because it was either grab one, or photograph it.  So sorry blogosphere, but eating won.  It was that good.  But watch out Executive Chef Babian, I’ll be back next year with another year of pumpkin cooking under my belt.  I’ll do my best to take on your tortellini again..or at least be quite ready to again grab one off the tasting plate.

Mahalo to all those who attended, volunteered their expertise, and added their talents to the day.  We all love a good come back story, and what better come back than that of the community farm fair.

My Pumpkin Noodle Nut