Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Melon, melon, who's got the melon?

Beyond The Big Three for summer magic

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It's hot, it's dry. It's summer. Just when you need something cool to pick you up and dust you off, what better to grab than a sweet, juicy melon?

Thing is, round these parts, we get stuck in a melon rut. Ask for some, and you'll probably get offered one of The Big Three: watermelon, cantaloupe or honeydew. To break out of your melancholy (sorry, couldn't resist!), try scoping out the dozens of other varieties, some so wondrous they can break your heart.

Not that there's anything wrong with The Big Three melons, especially if you get the right variety and one picked ripe, not green for shipping. Who hasn't eaten a belly full of watermelon in a hot summer field, the juice running down your forearms for the plants and ants below? But for a quick guide to what else you might be missing, check out Amy Goldman's beautiful book, Melons For the Passionate Grower. It makes us wonder at these magical, mysterious fruits — inside and out.

Not that you have to be a gardener to dig in. Victor Schrager's exquisite photos alone make you want to taste them all. Schrager, whose work is at the Whitney as well as MOMA New York and San Francisco, has devoted his practice to still lifes for decades. Rich and simply staged in elemental earth tones, these are portraits of melon nobility echoing 18th and 19th century botanical prints.

Goldman, for her part, is a devotee of seed saving and heritage varieties. She also has an eye for poetry and history. And so it is we discover wonderful melons like Queen Anne's Pocket Melon. This dappled little egg-shaped melon, valued more for its fragrance than taste, has been known and grown for more than a thousand years. Although it's not known exactly which Anne has lent it her name (Queen Anne of Austria?), we do know it comes by way of Egypt and Arabia. Small enough to fit in pockets, people carry it around for its "ooh-la-la" aroma.

Easy to grow, Queen Annes have escaped the confines of gardens for the wilds in Texas and Louisiana. Maybe we should go down and see if we can steal a few.

And this is just one little pocket of melon interest. There's the phut (the Hindi name) or snap melon from Asia, with hearts that look like cotton candy. Phuts are common in India where they're both medicine and food, often served with yogurt to offset their bitter taste. Also called bitter melons, they drifted from India to China in the 14th century, where they quickly became popular in stir-fries, maybe with pork and fermented black beans.

Then there's the mighty snake melon, also known, confusingly, as Armenian Cucumber or Serpent Cucumber. The names give you a good idea of its intriguing serpentine appearance and remind us that, although the genera vary, all melons are members of the Cucurbitaceae family, as are cucumbers, pumpkins and more.

Dry, sweet and crisp, snake melon is suited to pickling, as are many melons. But let's get back to the sweeter side of summer, and clear up some things about The Big Three.

First, what most of us call cantaloupes really aren't cantaloupes. The true cantaloupe (Catalupensis) is not usually seen in North America. France, yes, where they've been grown for hundreds of years, true cantaloupes, as Goldman points out, are "generally rounded in shape and often have prominent ribs (the "elevated" portions) and sutures (the trough-like vein tracks); and netting, if any is sparse." The rinds can be smooth or warty.

If you've ever been to France in summer, bought a fresh cantaloupe at a farmer's market, cut it open and eaten it while it's still warm, you'll think you've died and gone to heaven. I've been known to walk a mile, or at least several kilometres, for the classic, a Charentais. Fragrant, round beauties with slight green ribs that make a wonderful star shape, the only word that comes close to describing them is "ambrosia."

Then there's Petite Gris de Rennes, so good it gives Goldman chills, and the Ha'Ogen melon, popular in Israel with its sweet and spicy green flesh. Cantaloupes all, you can find seeds online as you can for all these melons.

The thing is, what we mistakenly call cantaloupes — round, smooth, netted melons with orange flesh — are really muskmelons (Reticulatus). Muskmelons include honeydews, which, along with crenshaws, casabas (delicious!), and winter melons are part of the Indorous group.

Then we have the all-Canadian summer favourite — watermelon! And believe you me, to use an old country expression, there are so many intriguing varieties it makes you wonder why we don't see more of them.

Don't say it's climate restrictions. As Goldman points out, there's something for every zone, including the tasty, creamy white Cream of Saskatchewan, brought to that province by Russian immigrants many years ago. If you can grow watermelons in Saskatchewan, you can grow them anywhere.

The golden-skinned, salmon-fleshed Golden Midget was co-developed by New Hampshire's Elwyn Meader, who was a strong opponent to plant patenting. It's perfect for lunchboxes and ripens in only 70 days. Sugar Babies have rinds the colour of eggplant, while the glorious Moon and Stars watermelon, with its leaves and rind dotted with constellations of yellow dots; its firm, sweet flesh; and big black seeds perfect for spitting, makes you want to sit on a porch somewhere and do just that.

No porch? No problem. Just sit in the shade somewhere and eat a juicy melon to your heart's content.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who can never get enough fresh melon.

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