The scent of a ripe melon, splayed open by a sharp knife, takes me back to summers at the Jersey shore, where we escaped the routines of life and embraced the salt air. We were in the Garden State, after all, so fruit from the farm stands along the way played a big part of the trek from city to beach. Plums, cherries - and sweet, fragrant cantaloupe.
But something happened over the years to the orange-fleshed melon we liked to call cantaloupe (more on that in a bit); suddenly, it was showing up on all-you-can-eat buffet spreads, airplane breakfast trays and as garnish to Sunday brunch omelets. The melon wedge had gone from backyard bliss to commodity conundrum.
A few too many unripe, chalky hunks of melon, and I swore off the stuff for decades. But I'm back in the saddle, thanks to the farmers who live nearby and take great pains to grow melons that squirt perfume like the old days and slide on your tongue and remind you that fruit grown off the vine can be downright... divine.
Culinary historians cannot agree about the melon's point of origin - was it Persia (Iran), as Waverley Root asserted in his encyclopedic Food or Africa, as Jonathan Roberts argues in Cabbages and Kings? Or was it Afghanistan, as others have claimed?
Perhaps it's worth treating the subject with a broad stroke, as done in the Oxford Companion to Food: "The wild ancestors of C. melo seem to have been native to the region stretching from Egypt to Iran and NW India."
What we do know is that the melon is the stuff of antiquity. Its first documented citation, says Waverley Root, appears in the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, dating to 2500 BC. Melon was revered during the Sumerian era; King Ur-Nammu of Ur grew melons in his garden around 2100 BC, as did Merodach-Baladan, the King of Babylonia.
By 300 BC, Greek scholars, including Pliny the Elder, were taking note of melopepo, followed by Galen the physician a century later. We know that melon seeds made it to China around this time, but it would be centuries more before melons would take hold in western Europe.
During his travels during the 11th and 12th centuries, explorer Marco Polo wrote of his experience of melons in Afghanistan, claiming them as the "best in the world."
Many scholars agree that Christopher Columbus brought melon seeds to Haiti in 1493. Muskmelons (and to a lesser degree, cantaloupes) were being discovered and discussed among colonial American gardeners and botanists. American John Custis, a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson living in Williamsburg, Va., observed in 1737 the "multitude of melons" growing in his slaves' gardens. By the mid-1800s, the Navajo Indians were growing melons on reservations in the southwest. Commercial melon production in the US kicked off sometime in the 1880s.
In De Re Coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking), first century Roman gastronome Apicius includes a savory recipe for melon, simmered with vinegar, honey, ground pepper and parsley, plus something referred to as Liquamen, the ancient Roman version of fish sauce.
Muskmelon (referred to as pepone) was among the dozens of plants in Capitulare de Villis, an imperial to-do list of sorts mandated by Charlemagne (Charles the Great) for his many estates around Europe during the 9th century.
The cantaloupe is named after Cantalupo, a town near Rome, where melon seeds from Armenia were grown on papal estates, probably around the early 16th century, according to Waverley Root in his compendium Food.
The 17th century French poet Claude Mermet said this of melons:
Friends are like melons. Shall I tell you why?
To find one good, you must a hundred try.
At Monticello, Thomas Jefferson grew muskmelons in his gardens as did his slaves in their own plots.
In the 1825 gastronomic treastise Physiology of Taste, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote that melons were edible only at their peak moment of ripeness, "as soon as they have reached all the perfection to which they are destined."
We're talking about the Cucurbitaceae (gourd) family, an enormous vine-growing clan that includes squash, cucumbers, pumpkins, gourds and watermelon.
For the purposes of this discussion, we are covering Cucumis melo, which includes the muskmelon, cantaloupe, honeydew and other sweet summer melons but not including watermelon (citrullus lanatus).
But first, let's clear something up. The orange-fleshed melon that American eaters know and love as the cantaloupe? Botanically speaking, it's a muskmelon (C. melo reticulatus). Turns out that a true cantaloupe (C. melo cantalupsensis) does not have that signature webbed or netted skin; instead it's got a rough, almost warty exterior, and you have to go to Europe to enjoy it. Put another way: All cantaloupes are muskmelons, but not all muskmelons are cantaloupes.
How or why Americans came to know the netted muskmelon as a cantaloupe is likely connected to a plucky immigrant farmer that brought seeds from France. (The first commercial import on the books was from France in 1881.)
The smoother-skinned melons that you see at market belong to a group called C. melo inodorus, also known as winter melons in some places. This would include better known varieties such as honeydew, Santa Claus and Casaba.
China is the top producing melon country, followed by Turkey and Iran. In the US, California supplies about three-fourths of the country's commercial output, followed by Arizona, Texas, Georgia and Florida.
Melon needs the heat of the sun - and lots of it - in order to deliver its promise of sweet succulence. In three- or four-season climates, that means melon shows up from mid to late summer, when nights are still mild. It thrives only in the presence of heat and relatively dry conditions. Once the autumn rains come, you can kiss those melons goodbye.
In Delights from the Garden of Eden, a history of Iraqi cookery, culinary scholar Nawal Nasrallah writes that melons resembling honeydew, "greenish and rather crunchy, but as sweet as honey," show up in the markets in Iraq in late summer. They are, she writes, "the harbingers of the fall."
Environmental Impact and Food Safety Concerns
Conventional cantaloupe has a relatively low pesticide load, earning "Clean 15" designation in the Environmental Working Group's 2013 Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce. (*See our Real Food rule of thumb.)
But cantaloupe has had more than its share of food safety scares in recent years. Contaminated cantaloupe from a Colorado farm was the source of a multi-state listeria outbreak in 2011. Thirty-three people died and 147 people fell ill in 28 states, one of the deadliest foodborne outbreaks in nearly 100 years.
And in 2012, two people died and 141 were hospitalized in connection with salmonella-contaminated cantaloupes grown in Indiana. In the wake of these outbreaks, California cantaloupe growers implemented a rigorous food safety program that includes mandatory government audits.
To date, the honeydew and its relatives in the winter melon (or C. melo indorus) group have escaped the wrath of foodborne illness; some argue that the net-like rind of the muskmelons is inviting to pathogens and increase the risk of contamination.
As mentioned earlier, the muskmelon is defined by a netting or webbed exterior. A true cantaloupe has more of a warty, rough skin. Both can be as small as a soft ball and as large as a volleyball. Flesh can be pale orange, salmon pink or green. Its relatives in the C. melo indorus group - honeydew, casaba and Santa Claus, to name a few - are all smooth-skinned with flesh that is white, pale yellow or pale green. Size can vary in this group, too; I recently had a Santa Claus melon the size of a mango, and saw a honeydew as big as a soccer ball.
What to look for
You want a melon that is free of nicks or cuts in the rind and mold on the blossom end. No soft spots, please. Give it a tap; it should sound a bit like a drum and should feel heavy in your hand. Finally, use your nose; a melon that is perfectly ripe or on its way should smell like flowers and honey.
Muskmelon is good food-as-medicine. One cup of muskmelon provides the daily recommended amounts for Vitamins A and C, a decent source of potassium, folate and fiber, all for about 54 calories. It also contains small amounts of heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. The pigments in the pastel-orange flesh are rich in beta-carotene and several other disease-fighting antixodants.
Like its cousin the watermelon, muskmelon is by weight more than 90 percent water, making it an excellent thirst quencher.
What to Do with it
Whether eaten raw or cooked, muskmelon, above all, needs your attention sooner rather than later. It is highly perishable and can morph from honeyed morsels with a heady perfume to a fermentation crock that smells like dirty socks in the span of an afternoon. Don't waste any time!
In the spirit of eating melon in the moment, keep whole melons out of the refrigerator, especially if it needs a day or two of ripening. Wash the exterior under running water just before eating; melon has a tendency to mold, so washing in advance will just hasten the decay. Leftover cut melon should be refrigerated and stored in a container with an airtight lid. The safest bet is to remove all rind to minimize risk of cross-contamination.
An informal survey on Facebook revealed that my fellow melon lovers like it savory - "with a few grinds of pepper, or prosciutto" or "with a little sprinkling of salt." Another insists on his melon being "chilled to the point that it hurts your teeth to bite into it."
Other than fruit salad or all by its lonesome over the sink, would you ever consider roasting muskmelon, as the folks behind The Joy of Cooking recommend?
At first, I blanched at the idea of cantaloupe pickles, as Sherri Brooks Vinton suggests in her book Put'em Up! but in light of my recent melon reunion, the notion seems less far-fetched. After all, muskmelon and cucumber are all in the cucurbita family. In her recipe, she describes the melon getting translucent after an hour-long simmer in a ginger and cinnamon-scented brine. Now that's something I could sink my teeth into.
Last but certainly not least, I've become a convert to drinking my muskmelon, thanks to a recipe from culinary scholar Nawal Nasrallah, whose book is mentioned earlier. Other than the sweetest melon you can get your mitts on, the secret to this elixir of the gods is rose water, an aromatic distilled water made from rose petals. Available at Middle Eastern and Asian markets, rose water is also sold online. Try this drink before melon season ends wherever you live; it will take the edge off a hot afternoon, and if you're lucky, transport you to a faraway place. It's that good.
Cantaloupe/Muskmelon Drink aka Aseer Battekh
Adapted from Delights from the Garden of Eden by Nawal Nasrallah. KOD testing notes in italics.
3 pounds cantaloupe or any sweet melon (I cut up about 6 cups' worth for about 4 servings)
1 cup granulated sugar, or to taste (I would add the sugar in ¼ cup increments and taste along the way, especially if your melon is very sweet)
About 3 cups cold water (Optional in my opinion)
½ cup fresh lemon or lime juice (Start with about ¼ cup, and taste as you go)
1 tablespoon rose water
Crushed ice, or ice cubes
Sprigs of mint for garnish
Remove skin and seeds from melon and cut into 1-inch pieces. Puree with sugar in a blender or food processor, in batches, until completely smooth.
Pour the mixture into a pitcher and add the water if using (I prefer the puree undiluted), as well as the citrus juice and rose water. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Serve over ice or straight up, with or without mint sprigs.