Summer’s Sweetest Bite
by Sarah West
If summer could be concentrated into one single dish, it would be a wedge of dripping red watermelon. The flavor equivalent of jumping into a lake—cool, refreshing, slightly vegetal—watermelon is an antidote for hot days. Blue whale of the fruit world, it takes a village to eat a full-size watermelon, so we gather around them at picnics, potlucks, and parties. I, for one, never tire of the show: the huge green fruit, the big knife, the rocking, the crack as it splits, the smell of cucumbers and sugar, the firecracker red.
Most of the year, I avoid melon—those ubiquitous fruit salads that adorn lunch and brunch plates year-round—because the fruits must be picked under-ripe in order to survive the journey from Central America and California. Melons get their sugar on the vine; while some of their flavor components continue to develop after they’ve been harvested, they don’t get any sweeter. Melons picked with shipping and storage in mind are soulless things—watery, rigid, and bland.
Member of the cucurbit family, melons are cousins to squash, zucchini, and cucumbers. Although the exact location varies by species, melons are generally believed to have originated in Africa, where they were one of the first domesticated plant foods (they have been in cultivation for an estimated 7,000 years). From there, they spread by human dispersal to India, the Mediterranean rim, the Middle East, and Persia, and, slightly later, to China, Southeast Asia, Japan, and Eastern Europe.
Ancient people dined on melons for some of the same reasons we still do today. Seventy- to ninety-percent water by weight, melons are like botanical pop cans, and those ancestral species had a knack for drawing water up from underground springs, imbuing it with flavor and (a few) calories, and storing it safely within an orb of thick waxy skin. Their presence signaled an invisible oasis, and their tart flesh offered desert people a much-needed source of hydration.
The first melons were not sweet, and thus were treated more like vegetables in the various culinary traditions that adopted them, cooked in stews or sliced and served raw as a salad, dressed with spices and vinegar. Over time, sweet-fleshed mutations appeared and growers began selecting for this appealing trait.
With sweetness also came fragrance. Italian orange-fleshed melons grown in the papal summer residence of Cantalupo were favored by generations of popes and their gardeners, a popularity that traveled to other outposts of the Catholic heirarchy. These cantaloupes, as they were called, reached their pinnacle in the Provencal village of Cavaillon, which became famous for melons that exuded fragrance as thick and floral as jasmine. These unique melons still stir feverish mania among Cavaillon locals and visitors alike. Known as Charentais melons, a name that clings to them from a stint in the slightly more northerly region of Charente where this particular melon strain was purportedly first developed, their heart will always belong to Cavaillon.
In our country, cantaloupes are a far cry from their European brethren. The variety we know as cantaloupe is not even in the same botanical group. An orange-fleshed muskmelon, American cantaloupes can also be sweet and fragrant, but they often aren’t, for reasons of distribution and storage. That makes the farmers market the best place to buy top quality melons—the sort that made generations of pharaohs, emperors and kings want more, and captivated the tastebuds of three continents long before the Old World bumped into the New.
Though most of us have gorged on countless melons without hesitation or thought, knowing how to shop for one is not as intuitive. Rough-skinned types are easier: since they “slip” from the vine once their sugars are fully developed, they should not have a stem (if so, they were picked to early). The stem end should be fragrant when sniffed, the skin below their bumpy reliefs a pale tan, not green. Watermelons and honeydew offer fewer clues, as they do not slip from the vine or exude fragrance outside their rind. Look first for the “ground spot,” the discolored area where the melon was in contact with the soil—it should be pale yellow, not green or white. Then, give the fruit a sturdy knock. If the sound seems to travel back to you from inside the fruit (implying hollowness) the flesh is ready; if the thud stays right where you’ve knocked it, pass that melon by.
All melons benefit from a day or two’s rest on the kitchen counter. Although they will not get any sweeter, other components of the melon’s flavor (and nutritional value) continue to develop at room temperature. Don’t store them in the refrigerator (it’s too cold to allow flavor components to synthesize) until you’ve sliced them open, at which point they’re ready to chill a bit before eating or to store for a few days, if they last that long.