When melon season at the farmers’ market comes around, it is time to make some choices. Here you are, standing in front of a veritable arsenal of melons, stacked in heaps and mounds, besotted with the fragrance of their sweet ripe flesh. Your shopping bags are already full of a myriad of items, none of which will withstand the pressure of several pounds of melons sitting atop them. Your hands are full. Your parking meter is running out. You must have some melons. What to do?
First of all, calm down and take a deep breath. Inhale the scent of summer itself. Carefully put down your shopping bags and commit yourself to a few moments of rest and deliberation while you begin to visually select the melon you will inevitably purchase. Purchasing a melon is a major commitment, what with the limited number of hands you have. You can start by sampling some melons, and asking questions of the farmers. How long will it keep? Do I need to refrigerate it? How can I tell if it’s ready to eat? What kind is this one? In fact, farmers spend more time answering questions about melons than about any other kind of fruit that I have overheard.
The edible flesh of a melon is encased in a thick rind and invisible to the naked eye. Other than citrus fruit, which also have thick inedible skins , melons are the only produce items at the market that remain mysterious until opened. This is why customers rely on the farmer to steer them right when they’re selecting the one – or three or four – melons they will end up buying. Farmers have been experimenting with new varieties of open-pollinated, or heirloom melons over the past several years, so consumers’ choices have expanded dramatically. Where just a few years ago the “yuppie” melon – a single-serving sized watermelon – generated a sensation at the markets, these days there are several rediscovered heirloom varieties to choose from. And of course there are the always dependable, netted orange flesh “cantaloupes,” which we have come to find out are not true cantaloupes at all.
True cantaloupes are members of the family cantalupenses which had its origins in Armenia. The melons were taken by missionaries to the papal gardens near Rome, Italy in a town called Cantalupo, (“singing wolf”) in Italian. From there they were exported to France in 1495 where they flourished during the Renaissance. The most popular and well known cantaloupe in France today is the Charentais, which was developed in the 1920s in the town of Charentes in western France. It is a typical cantaloupe in shape and color — round, with pronounced meridional sutures — grooves that run from the stem end to the blossom end — and free of the tan netting commonly associated with “cantaloupes.” Its skin is grayish-green with green suture lines. South of Charentes is another excellent melon-growing town called Cavaillon, which has lent its name to another delicious cantaloupe. Both of these varieties embody everything that is wonderful about cantaloupes – sweet, melting orange flesh, bountiful aroma, and manageable size. Another delightful member of the cantalupenses family is the Ogen, also called Ha Ogen, which originated on a kibbutz in Israel. The Ogen has become a staple at farmers’ markets. It has golden skin with wide green sutures and thick, sweet green flesh.
In the family of musk melons, one will find the familiar round, netted orange fleshed melon known commonly as a cantaloupe. The musk melon family is a crowded one, and its members are various and dependably delicious. Weiser Family Farms grows a Sugar Queen that has bronze-gold skin, orange flesh and a white rind that distinguishes it from other musk melons. Weiser Farms also grows another orange flesh variety called Eastern Musk Melon and a green fleshed Jenny Lind, which has distinguishing green sutures and a bump on the end.
Various other specimens of the reticulata (musk melon) family are the Ambrosia and Supreme — two lightly netted, impossibly sweet varieties, and Munak Ranch’s Rocky Sweet — a yellow-skinned, netted green flesh delight. The white-fleshed, ovoid Ananas is also delicious eating. It is lightly netted and has a golden skin with slight green undertones. You can tell a fully ripe reticulata by the indentation left on the stem end when it is picked. This is known as “full slip” by melon connoisseurs who have learned from farmers how to select the best melons.
One of the most interesting new melons at Weiser Farms’ stand is the whimsically named “Collective Farm Woman.” It belongs to the inodorus meaning “no smell” or hard-shell melons that do not give off wafting melon odors even when ripe. Other inodori include the Honeydew, and green and gold skinned Santa Claus melons. Collective Farm Woman is a round, faintly reticulated melon with a skin that goes from dark green to yellow speckled to bright gold. Its flesh is yellow-white, very sweet and slightly crunchy. It originated in the Ukraine, where it was saved from the ravages of the Stalin regime by a female member of a farming collective. Seeds are now available from Seed Savers International, a foresighted seed company dedicated to finding and preserving the world’s rare plant varieties. Other melons in this family are the bright yellow Canary, football shaped with sweet white flesh. Weiser Farms is also growing a slightly smaller version of the Canary Sugar Nut.
Watermelons can be overlooked what with the plethora of colors and shapes of their smaller, rounder cousins clamoring for attention of farmers’ tables. But it is hard to surpass a vine-ripe, sweet red watermelon for true summer eating. Farmers will argue about which variety tastes better — the one with seeds or the one without — but you can enjoy delicious watermelon at several stands at the market. Many of the new varieties such as Micky Lee are round, but the Weisers are experimenting this year with an old-fashioned large oval watermelon called Charleston Gray. It has a light green-gray skin, red flesh and seeds and is reported to have outstanding flavor.So are you ready to pick up your bags, your new melon purchases, and make your way home? You should have selected fragrant, full slip specimens that feel heavy for their size. Melons can be refrigerated once they are brought home but they also do well in a cool place on the counter. Melons will not continue to sweeten after they are picked, which is a good reason to get them at a farmers’ market where they are picked fully ripe. Since they are so ripe, they should be consumed within a few days or kept in the refrigerator for up to a week. If the flesh has a saturated appearance when opened, or if the seeds are completely loose and sloshing around, the melon may have passed its flavor peak. Enjoy your summer treats and be sure to come on back for more.