"Beyond a slice of prosciutto, there is little anyone can do with a truly ripe melon that can make it a better thing. I will go along with a water ice and the odd razor-sharp salsa, but more than that and I can't help asking - why?" Nigel Slater
Every week or so I change my desktop picture - making a selection from my Photos library. Today I chose the above picture of a whole lot of those small melons you can buy in France - plus a bit of intruding watermelon that somehow got into the mix. I have forgotten where I took the photo. It could be anywhere from a hypermarket to a small village shop, not to mention all the markets big and small that are dotted around every small town in France. So here I go to write a little about melons although I have sneaking suspicion I have done it before.
I first encountered melons in France of course. I would go shopping with Monette (Simone), my French exchange friend in her small Loire village. I learnt so much about shopping for food from her - and she would only have been about 13 at the the time. With melons she would gently, well maybe not that gently, press the top of the melon to see if there was a slight give - then she would pick it up and sniff it. If you got the right kind of scent it was good. Today, for this article, I have since learnt that the more of that 'netting' that is a feature of the skin the better it is as well. Although I think that probably depends on the kind of melon. And with those melons with the stripes - the more stripes the better. I am only going to talk about the cantaloupe and the charentais, today, and I think that some varieties have smooth skins.
"Press the melon gently at the flower end: it should give a little. Smell it, too: summer melons should have plenty of bouquet. Ideally, there should be no remnant of stalk; if fully ripened on the vine, they come away cleanly, without having to be cut. If a melon doesn't fulfil these criteria, it is not right." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
So it seems that Monette was doing exactly the right thing. I still do this when buying a cantaloupe in Melbourne, where I suspect that most of them are sold underripe because it is very rarely that I get much of a scent when I sniff at them. But then they are a different variety to the prime Cavaillon melons that you get in France. I think they are a kind of Charentais, which are supposed to be the ultimate in melon.
Most of my sources seemed to think that there is no way to save an unripe melon. A melon does not ripen once picked. So you need to be sure that you have chosen a ripe one. I did find a couple of writers who seemed to think that you could leave it to ripen in your kitchen, but I suspect not.
Back to Cavaillon though. Cavaillon is a massive distribution centre a little south of Avignon. Its village centre is surrounded by rail lines, autoroutes and other roads, cluttered with trucks delivering Provence's agricultural products to the rest of France and Europe too. It is also surrounded by massive warehouses and distribution hubs. It's market is one of the biggest in France apparently - well the wholesale market anyway. The village is not outstandingly beautiful but not without charm and in a small restaurant there called Fin de Siècle we had one, no two - we returned a few years later - of the most delicious meals we have had in France. The Cavaillon melon has to come from the region and it looks like this - which makes me think that the ones I photographed were the same
And see how juicy they look. Much juicier than most of the ones you get here - so make sure you test them.
"The taste and scent of ripe melons is a complex delight. They contain a plethora of flavour compounds that make them fragrant and floral to the point of intoxicating. There's a lot of honeyed sweetness, a delicate, almost alcoholic edge and a slightly musky, sulphurous note, too." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
The Cavaillon melon developed from some seeds brought back by Charles II sometime in the 1400s from the Pope's garden in Rome. The Popes are said to have loved them and remember there were Popes in Avignon at the time as well as in Rome.
Anyway if your melon is not ripe and juicy - although even better if it is you can save it.
"If you’ve cut one that is merely meh, you can improve it exponentially by wrapping prosciutto around it, or slicing it up and serving it in a salad with burrata. The old adage that you can improve most things with bacon and fat is in this case true!" Palisa Anderson - The Guardian
And actually there isn't an awful lot more you can do with melon.
"It has to be said that these are not the most versatile of fruits. Their sugar-'n'-water flesh goes well with ham, bacon and salty, hard cheeses. It can work with a little chilli, some coriander and mint. Ginger, orange, redcurrant and blackberry can get pretty up close and personal, too - but that's about it." Nigel Slater
You can pickle the skin of watermelon but not the cantaloupe kind. Well not as far as I can see anyway. So yes it is all important that you choose the perfect one. I do like melon, but you know if we buy one I tend to forget about it and don't eat it and the ones we get here are pretty large, and so take a bit of getting through. They are surprisingly filling too.
So mostly you will just find recipes for salads and granitas and the occasional cold soup.
Before I leave the melon I should mention another variety found in Japan that costs an absolute fortune. An 'ordinary' one will cost you upwards of $200 and $70.000 has actually been paid.
Adam Liaw wrote an interesting article about them. They look more like our cantaloupes than the Cavaillon melons, but they are different and it's the way they are grown that makes them so expensive.
"Shizuoka’s famed Crown muskmelons are tended by hand for 100 days, one per vine They’re rubbed with gloved hands to stimulate even growth and sweetness. On sunny days they’re fitted with caps to prevent sunburn, and when harvested they’re graded on shape and skin quality as one might for pearls." Adam Liaw
He goes on to make some really interesting points about how much we are prepared to pay for food:
"Some of us will pay hundreds of dollars for a meal that has been tricked up by a chef for a few hours, but baulk at the same money for fruit that has been tended by a farmer for months." Adam Liaw
Which is quite true, but of course, it still means that the rich are the only ones who get to eat these treasures. Are they worth it one wonders? He does say that he once had one and that it was the most delicious melon he had ever eaten, but nevertheless ...
"In the Asian household I grew up in, we were told to finish our food not because children in Africa were starving, but because idiomatically every grain of rice represented a bead of sweat on a farmer’s brow." Adam Liaw
The dilemma, of course, is that it's élitist to eat such things and that of course we should actually be trying to find ways of producing good quality food that is affordable to all and if that means factory farming and not much sweat on the farmer's brow, then so be it. Surely it is better that the majority of people get to eat - even if it is not Michelin star quality melon - than not at all. And on a smaller scale to my mind that applies to all that expensive 'health' and organic food out there.
And whilst we are still on Japan - well sort of. Look at this. Only in Japan surely? Yes it's an actual square watermelon. He didn't say how much that cost. Honestly why would you do that?
Or are they postscripts - anyway nothing to do with melons - all about the Easter feast
Well done David - you didn't burn the pork kebabs and they were actually pretty nice and not too tough.
As to Yotam Ottolenghi's scrumptious looking potato salad. I did try it and the taste was quite interesting, but what a lot of fuss and bother and mine did not turn out like his. No matter how long I cooked the salsa in its two different cooking sessions I ended up with a lot of liquid that I don't think was supposed to be there. Yes it charred but it was liquid too - I think he possibly cheated and strained the liquid from the tomatoes off. And I've got an awful lot left over too. So tonight I shall pick out some of the potatoes and make an omelette. The salsa will be useful in all sorts of things, as yet undecided. And the pumpkin seeds were pretty delicious. Great for nibbles.
Yes David I did mention Fin de Siècle. A small room up some narrow stairs with somewhat old-fashioned service - complete with the silver dome covering the food that was removed with a flourish at table. The food, as I said, was divine and not very expensive, leading our son who was with us at that time, to wonder how on earth they could do it.