Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

A tale of two melon-choly babies

Where does a cantaloupe leave off and a muskmelon begin?

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I’m standing at a popular Fraser Valley farm stand, two hefty melons in hand and I hear it coming before it actually does: "Hey, baby, nice pair of melons."

Thank goodness it’s a pal, one l haven’t seen in a while, and we catch up as we mull over the two locally grown melons.

One comes from the pile marked cantaloupes, and it’s a classic, with a greenish undercoat and a nice, even beige netting, pleasingly heavy for its size. The fragrance is a bit musky with the distinctive sweetness that can only mean – unlike its California cousins picked 100 years before you get them – it ripened on the vine.

The other is from the pile marked muskmelons. Muskmelons? I’ve always thought that was just another name for cantaloupes. My pal has never even heard of them before.

It’s also pleasingly fragrant and heavy for its size. But it’s more ovoid, with a much coarser netting over the greenish-brown undercoat, and it’s ribbed. Plus there’s a slight bump on the bottom and a bit of the stem still attached, things I’ve never seen on a cantaloupe.

We ask the clerk, who can’t help with our confusion, and the boss is out. So in the name of science and good taste I dutifully buy them both and bring them home. Let the melon challenge begin.

So we Canucks all know what a cantaloupe tastes like, right? Well, maybe not. If you’ve always relied on grocery stores for your melons you may be getting only the pale, hard, relatively tasteless version that I grew up with in Edmonton. My dad and grandpa would eat them with salt. I thought it was to eke out some kind of flavour, but turns out this is a venerable Old World tradition.

It’s really important that melons ripen on the vine. Because they don’t store starch, they won’t get sweeter after they’re picked. The fragrance may still develop post-picking, but it will never match a vine-ripened melon.

Ergo most Canadians haven’t ever tasted the real thing, unless they’ve been lucky enough to be in melon country, like the Okanagan or Fraser Valley, in late August through September. (Summer finishes a bit too cool and wet in Pemberton Valley for cantaloupes to be happy there.) Now if you lived in Kansas or California, you’d be sick of ripe cantaloupes by now.

So we cut into the vine-ripened cantaloupe – I’m drooling now just thinking about it. Ooh la la. The leathery skin offers a nice degree of resistance, then whoosh, the blade slides through the flesh. Juice spills out, along with a sweetish, musky aroma. (Muskmelon is so named because of the delightful odor of the ripe fruits. Musk in Persian means a kind of perfume; melon is French, from the Latin melopepo, meaning "apple-shaped melon".)

This is going to be good. And it is. The bright orange flesh is firm and sweet. The thin line of green just under the skin indicates it won’t be too sulphury or musky from over-ripeness, and it isn’t – a hint of lemon drifts in the undercurrent. This is a melon done to perfection.

Okay, bring on the muskmelon. No real scent through the skin, except for some earthiness where it rested on the ground. I slice it lengthwise, parallel to the ribs, and gasp. So much juice flows forth it spills across the cutting board and onto the counter. I’ve opened the gates to nirvana.

The aroma is way richer and more pungent than Mr. Cantaloupe’s; the orange colour way deeper, too. The flesh is softer, more yielding – could this be from being riper? – and the flavour, my god, we have cleared the gates and reached the other side. It’s rich and sultry to the bottom of your toes. If you’re too lazy or stressed for sex, try a slice of ripe muskmelon. No wonder they were symbols of fertility and luxury.

But we still don’t know what the heck a muskmelon is. So I go to the web and get more confused. Sites, and some are university-based websites, are contradictory: Cantaloupes are netted; cantaloupes are never netted; muskmelons grow in North America but cantaloupes never do.

For final authority I turn to the final authority, Harold McGee, and his fine book, On Food and Cooking (the updated edition). Here’s the scoop:

The true cantaloupe ( cantalupensis ), introduced to the commune Cantalupo in Italy from Armenia, is a hard-shelled or rock melon which may be smooth or lightly netted. It is seldom grown outside the Mediterranean, at least not commercially. The most widely enjoyed variety of true cantaloupe is the charentais , cultivated almost exclusively in France . It’s lightly ribbed and pale green, and looks quite different from the North American muskmelon.

So what most of we North Americans have been calling cantaloupes forever are really muskmelons. We have the famous Burpee seed company to thank for our common confusion. They introduced this so-called cantaloupe in the U.S. in 1881 as the "Netted Gem" (you know, the beige-ish round melon you usually find in the produce section). I guess their marketing director figured we’d be put off by anything musk.

As for the "muskmelon" I got in the Fraser Valley, let me further confuse you. It’s likely a pancha melon, which is a cross between a muskmelon and the charentais – the true cantaloupe. The clue: the bit of stem left on the end, which is a sign of a true cantaloupe. Never mind, just go get one and enjoy.

 

SMALL BOX:

 

ONE LAST OBSERVATION

Like many others, I was shocked and saddened by the sudden death of Ken Quon, former manager at IGA. Whenever I spoke with Ken I was impressed with his bright, articulate manner. If the topic turned to alternatives – organic foods, greener cleaners – invariably we came to the same junction in the conversation. You know it’s really funny, he would say, when I came up here I thought oh, it’s Whistler, everybody’s healthy and into the environment, I’d better bring in all the healthy stuff. But that didn’t sell. You know what we sell the most? Pop and chips. So I asked him if he thought this was a case of mistaken identity, that Whistler’s image was way different from reality. He laughed and said, "You’d be surprised how conventional people in Whistler really are."

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who likes her melons ripe enough so the juice runs down her elbows.

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