Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Hello! Let's talk melons

It's mid-March and a few months before the really good melons start to come around. You'll be able to find some at local farmer's markets, and I urge you to try the local produce. But in most parts of the U.S., they'll be in grocery stores or supermarkets and grown in California, Texas, Mexico, or possibly Arizona. Note -- I don't wish to imply that I think it's right that these melons come from places that are, essentially, deserts (see Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner, copyright 1986, Viking Penguin, Inc., for a majorly exhaustive examination of what makes growing such water-dependent plants possible where rainfall is so scant), but it is a fact that, generally speaking, those are where supermarket melons come from.

Moving past politically charged questions about where the water to grow these luscious products come from, what are melons anyway? And more importantly, how do you, as a buyer, increase your chances of buying a really good one each time you visit the store?

Part the first, all melons, cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon -- all of them -- are basically cucumbers, highly selected and hybridized cukes, falling into different genuses, to be sure, but all, nevertheless, cucurbitaeceae. You can see this sometimes with the long, red seeded watermelons of late summer, which look like nothing more than a giant, bloated cucumber.



I'll get to watermelon in a future post, but for now I'd like to concentrate on the muskmelon types, which include among others such delicacies as Cantaloupes, Crenshaws, Casabas, and Galias, along with one I've never seen or tasted, the Montreal Melon, a muskmelon once popular up and down the East Coast but largely supplanted by more durable varieties some years ago.

So part the second, how can you tell a good one? I wish this was a simple question to answer, particularly with regard to what we call cantaloupe (Europeans have a different melon called cantaloupe), but there are a few fairly reliable tests for tastiness, especially with mid- to late-season California cantaloupes.

First, did the melon slip off the vine? If the stem end shows a depression with no trace of stem remaining, that is a very good sign.

Second, does the melon look right? It should be symmetrical in shape, nicely rounded with even webbing all around (except for perhaps the ground spot) and evenly colored under the webbing. A sort of brownish-beige is just about right. No bruised or soft spots, please: Firm is best.

Third, does the melon give under gentle pressure on the stem or flower end (or both), and then spring back? This is an indication of internal readiness, of flesh that is ready to just melt in your mouth with that unique canteloupe spiciness, ample juice, and a bite that is next to heavenly with its combination of firmness and yielding softness.

Fourth (and last), how does the melon smell? I usually check the stem end for this. If the fragrance is strongly aromatically cantaloupe-y, chances are you've got a good one.


Honeydews were developed in France, and as with many things French (apologies to my few French acquaintances), are a bit enigmatic to Americans. Commercial honeydew tend to be hard as rocks both inside and outside, so I suspect most grocery store patrons wonder why anyone would like them.

Perhaps unfortunately, patience is required to obtain a good honeydew -- meaning that in most cases, you have to buy one, put it someplace cool and dry for a few weeks to complete the ripening process, and then consume it.

Still, sometimes you can find good ones. Here's what to look for.

Forget the honeydew with the creamy white skin; it'll be a stone inside. Look for one that's trending toward light yellow. If you find such a specimen, give it a gentle squeeze. If it gives slightly and springs back when you back off on the pressure, look around the flower and stem ends for a faint webbing -- faint, mind you, barely there. Examine the melon for bruises or soft spots, and finding none, head for the checkout.

A few years ago, one of my regular honeydew customers was an elderly guy, just about as poor as you can imagine, but rich in his knowledge of honeydew. We always bickered about the price and I (sucker!) nearly everytime dropped my asking for him alone to a couple of cents more than I paid for the melon. I appreciated his pluck and his knowledge of a melon most people don't appreciate at all, not to mention the knowledge he passed along about color and softness and long-term storage (cool,, dry, dark). I haven't seen him for a couple of years, so I hope he's still alive and still buying honeydews.


Crenshaws (sometimes spelled Cranshaw) are closely related to honeydew, but totally different. They are one of my favorites, uniquely sweet and faintly spice-y in flavor (I think vanilla, but I'm not the last word on this). They exhibit a unique shape, almost flat on the flower end and coming to a well-defined point on the stem end. They range in color from light yellow to yellow but almost orange, with a light orange flesh that can extend right out to the skin with almost no rind at all.

What you are likely to find in the supermarket are Crenshaws that are a little short of fully ripe (they don't ship well when completely ripened), so they are likely to have a skin color in the light yellow range rather than the yellow just short of orange that is, in my opinion, the more desirable color to look for.

A personal note -- I've only seen the orange-ish Crenshaws once in 17 years in the business, and those were considered overripe by the shipper, so they were both inexpensive and totally tasty; that was at a small specialty produce store, so our customers had a special treat for the week and a half we could get them.

Aside from color, what to look for? Crenshaws typically are not as aromatic as cantaloupe, so fragrance doesn't enter the picture, but general appearance and feel -- firm, with even color, no bruising, no obvious soft spots -- is the place to start.

Here's what to be especially vigilant for -- webbing. Crenshaws, like others in the canteloupe family, develop webbing, but the tastiest are likely to exhibit faint webbing, generally confined to the flower and stem ends. I'd be suspicious about a crenshaw with webbing that covered more than about 25 percent of the melon surface or that was more than faintly evident.

Crenshaws tend to be more expensive than honeydews or cantaloupes, and although brands don't matter much in produce, sometimes they do. The Peacock brand is, in my estimation, consistently the best, and this is an unsolicited endorsement. Peacock is usually around in August and September.


Casaba melons are in the same grouping as honeydews and crenshaws, but with a strongly lobed bright yellow skin, white-ish to medium green flesh, and a uniquely musky flavor. Not everyone, I have to say, likes the flavor -- it's strong and overwhelms the senses at first bite -- but it can grow on you and is definitely worth a try.

The same general rules of selection apply to casabas as to crenshaws, although crenshaws are, I think, better if they are totally firm. The flower end often opens up more on casabas, creating a circle around a little prominence of yellow flesh that you don't often see on melons. Look for the (faint!) webbing, mostly in this case, around the flower end for the best examples. Again, unsolicited endorsement, I think Peacocks are generally the best available.


Galia are relatively new to the melon scene. They began to show up (or at least I first noticed them) in the early 90's and were incredibly expensive at first. They've settled into a more competitive price position as time has passed (and greater production was achieved), so if you haven't had one yet, they're definitely worth a look-see-taste-try now.

Galia were developed in Israel sometime during the 70's (according to Wikipedia, and to my understanding of their origins), and seem to combine the flavor characteristics of both muskmelon/canteloupe and honeydews, but sweeter and more succulent than either of these more conventional types. The skin (ripe, of course) is light green to greenish-yellow under a webbing that is perhaps best described as spider-webby, and the flesh is greenish-white near the seed cavity fading to medium green near the skin. Like most melons, the good melons will give slightly under pressure and spring back when released.

Galia rinds are small, so this is a melon you can enjoy almost all the way out to the skin, like a really ripe crenshaw. And galias, perhaps because they're highly hybridized (hybrid vigor, people!), tend to be large. Where cantaloupes and honeydews seldom exceed a pound and three-quarters in weight (about 700 to 750 g or maybe a little more), galias routinely top 2 pounds, and many run to two and a quarter pounds (one kg) each.

'til next time

This by no means an exhaustive list of melons, just the ones I happen to like best. Any questions you may have, I'd be glad to try to answer, and any comments or other tips are warmly welcomed. Watermelons next! Until then, enjoy!

Steve the Green Grocer

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