Melons and melancholia

Pub date September 12, 2006

There are those who spend the year passionately awaiting Christmas, and then there are those who spend the year passionately awaiting the arrival of charentais melons.
Although I like Christmas, I belong, in my heart, to the latter group, and I must recuse myself on the question of which is the more bathetic passion. Christmas, at least, is a sure thing; charentais melons are iffy — and this year, very iffy.
We are talking, then, about cantaloupe: not the familiar musk melons with the netted, khaki-colored rinds marketed as cantaloupe in this country but the real deal, the melons grown from European cultivars, with the same orange-yellow flesh as musk melons but with smooth, cream and green rinds etched with green longitudinal arcs. These melons are typically known by and sold under French names, charentais and cavaillon, though their European origin is thought to be not in France but Italy, in the environs of a town called Cantaluppi (“song of the wolves”) near Rome. It was here that the melons were first introduced into Europe from Armenia.
I love the romance of history, but the endless wet winter and slow spring were hard on local melons, the charentais in particular. I had been hunting for them in markets since the Fourth of July or so, but the first examples only turned up toward the end of August — along with Gravenstein apples and the season’s first peppers, those harbingers of autumn. Still, better late than never, unless late means bad. I was so glad to see the melons, and there were so few of them, that I snapped up a pair without sniffing them, only to find, when I sliced one open a day later, that fermentation had set in. The kitchen filled with the scent of Midori. Midori is lovely, of course — but not for breakfast, generally speaking. The melons went straight to the compost bin, where they joined the Tower Market flyer advertising charentais melons that could not be found, despite industrious scouting by the produce staff. The shipment didn’t come in, I was told when I asked, because the melons weren’t good enough?
A week later, hard upon Labor Day, I found another box of them. Chose one by sniffing, paid my $3 with the hopeful resignation of the Lotto player, got it home, sliced it open, success. Shot of Midori to celebrate. (Not really.)