Know Your Melons
Shake it. Squeeze it. Smell it. That’s how you pick a good melon, right?
Ask around and you’ll hear dozens of ways to detect the deliciousness beneath the thick rind of a watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, or other variety of Cucumis melo. It’s with good reason we pass down these techniques from generation to generation. After all, there are few better things to bring to a cookout or day at the beach than a perfectly ripe melon—and no faster way to go from hero to zero than to cut into a pale, sour, grainy, or otherwise off-putting specimen.
So what is the best way to know if your melon is worthy of a crowd? The obvious answer is to taste it, but in a retail setting, that’s called putting the cart before the horse. In the absence of a core sample or X-ray glasses, we rely on age-old wives tales and myths, each with its own kernel of truth. Is a heavy melon good? Well, it’s likely mature, which is a plus. Are loosey-goosey seeds a positive indicator? Likewise. But probably the best way to test a melon is to close your eyes and take a deep breath in close proximity to the umbilical—the spot where the vine was once attached. If the melon flavor you covet emanates from the place the fruit was born, you’re most likely in luck.
An alternative path is to eschew the dog-eat-dog world of common cantaloupe procurement and take the road less traveled with a more exotic variety. A higher price might dissuade some, but lesser-known varieties find their way into the marketplace on the basis of their culinary merits, rather than as a commercial imperative.
Last summer, I decided it was finally time to build a mental archive and flavor palate for this diverse and somewhat foreign family of treats. As an investment in deliciousness, a group of curious epicureans and I purchased and cut into a dozen different melons, exploring their unique qualities and imagining their applications in the kitchen.
The crisp, ivory flesh of the Sprite melon would be as at home in a salad as with a chilled oyster. The sweet, pinkish meat of a Crenshaw suggested an ability to elevate charcuterie to new heights. A Galia melon’s tame sweetness and lime-green flesh make it an ideal choice for a chilled soup with mint and crème fraîche. And my personal favorite: the Charentais, which is characterized by the deep orange sweetness of the very ripest cantaloupes and a musky, floral quality. It renders a delectable icebox treat after a spin in the blender and time to set. This summer, between oversized wedges of watermelon, take notice of these other juicy orbs—before they’re gone for another year.