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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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.

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