Revivals and Survivals
Melon With The Meal?
These days melon is a commonplace in the Australasian diet. In South Australia it’s quite a favourite for lunch with the slim office girls in their neat suits: the melon equally neat, chopped into bite-size chunks in small plastic pots. Here it’s often the apricot-coloured rock melon (or “rockmelon”) alone, or sometimes a mixture with pale green honeydew melon as well. Cheaper to make, though not to buy, is the three-melon mixture with watermelon pink added to the pot. And aficionados of the “smoothie” will have no trouble in buying a whirred-up mixture of melon.
Watermelons are more seasonal, on sale in the hotter months, but the other types seem to be available in Adelaide for large parts of the year. Modern recipes for using them in fruit salads and smoothies abound on both sides of the Tasman. Yet I can remember when rock melons were a new, exciting and very special fruit in New Zealand.
Up until then our basic fruits were pretty much the traditional British ones: apples and pears. Plums were available in season, but not popular with the kids. Strawberries were very seasonal and very expensive: during the Fifties we had them at Christmas, but that was it. Imported bananas were quite cheap, so we often had them: the small, sweet, very streaked ones from the Cook Islands, not the large, straighter and less tasty Cavendish sort that seem to have invaded all parts of the English-speaking world these days. Mum couldn’t always make the budget stretch to the imported navel oranges. We sometimes had the local offering, much smaller, flatter, softer-skinned and fairly tasteless: so bad that although I think they did have a special name, I’ve forgotten it. Poor man’s oranges? Maybe.
We also got peaches in season, but the bulk of the peach crop went to Wattie’s, for canning. At one stage our cousins lent us a hilarious home movie of dear Aunty May up a ladder picking peaches: it went too fast, whether it was just Dad speeding it up, I’m not sure. Nectarines, always the genuine red-blushed, green-skinned sort, were much rarer unless you grew your own.
Really exotic fruits like pineapples, pawpaws, and mangoes were sometimes available, but not in our local greengrocery. I must have been nineteen before I saw a mango: a friend’s mother worked at the big wholesale fruit and vegetable markets in town, and she occasionally got one, which would be peeled, sliced, and shared out with scrupulous fairness.
In season the home gardeners’ favourites were always on offer: frightful feijoas, ghastly guavas, and that favourite pavlova topping, passionfruit—and of course the strong, tangy New Zealand grapefruit and the equally tangy tree tomatoes (tamarillos). (See the blog posts “On Golden Pond - Of Marmalade and Puddings” and “Vini Vidi Vinegar” (on bottled oysters, soused trout, & tamarillos.)
Friends of friends had a huge loquat tree, too: it bore prolifically but was prone to a horrible sort of black fungal disease. The same friends’ dad grew boysenberries, or was it loganberries? If you had a green thumb and the time, fruits such as these were perfectly possible, but you couldn’t buy them. There were no supermarkets. We’ve come a long way, baby.
A New and Exciting Fruit
I was well into my teens, so it must have been around 1960, before I ever ate “rock melon.” The New Zealand ones over the next 20 years were quite small, very sweet and very aromatic. They had pale fawn skins, fretted with a network of narrow raised lines. The modern varieties I buy in South Australia today, often called “cantaloupes,” have the same skins but are much bigger, not as sweet and, although they will still scent the fridge when cut if you don’t smother them in plastic cling wrap, not nearly as aromatic.
According to David Burton in Delectable Fruits Cookery for New Zealanders (1985) there are five “very broad categories” of true melon (Cucumis melo), and the New Zealand rock melon is the same as the cantaloupe. His definition of the latter is the conventional one: it “takes its name from the Castle of Cantalupo in Italy”. He goes on: “It has a warty rind, sometimes deeply grooved. The flesh is bright orange (or, very rarely, green or scarlet) and heavily scented.” In that case, though they were definitely called rock melons, the ones we bought in New Zealand from the Sixties through the Eighties were not true cantaloupes.
The description of the category Burton discerns as musk melons (which is a very old English name for a type of melon) fits them better: “the musk, netted or nutmeg melon. These have a raised, netted rather than warty rind and are often confused with the true cantaloupe. The flesh ranges from salmon-pink to green.” I've never seen one with green flesh; and I don’t think I’m colour-blind: ours were apricot rather than what is conventionally thought of as salmon-pink. Very likely they were hybrids: Burton himself explains that “the different varieties interbreed.”
Rock Melon? The Sweet Scent of Musk
In fact our modern Australasian orange-fleshed “rock melons” or “cantaloupes” probably derive from America both as to breeding and as to nomenclature. After quite considerable confusion and frustration I was thrilled to discover Wesley Greene’s most informative online article, which points out that the fawn-skinned and orange-fleshed ones, called cantaloupes in the U.S., are descendants of the old musk melons, not true cantaloupes at all. He quotes Bernard McMahon, a Philadelphia nurseryman, writing in 1806, as follows:
“‘The true Cantaleupe or Armenian warted Melon, is … large, roundish and deeply ribbed, a little compressed at both ends, the surface full of warted protuberances, like some species of squash.”
Greene goes on: "By the middle of the 19th century, Americans began using ‘cantaloupe’ to describe the musk melon … One reason for the confusion (that persists to this very day) may be that the ancient cantaloupe was characterized by having an orange flesh while the original musk melon typically had green flesh. About the time the true cantaloupe disappeared, the orange fleshed musk melon appeared so we just substituted the name. The musk melon has several advantages over the cantaloupe. It tends to be sweeter and more productive, that is, producing more fruit per vine than the cantaloupe. The musk melon also spontaneously separates from the vine when fully ripe which makes judging its suitability for harvest simplicity itself.” (Wesley Greene. "The Ancient Gardener: A Sweet Summer Medley of Melons", Making History, presented by Colonial Williamsburg.
Today melons seem so common to us, but they’re a revival of what used to be a high-class fashionable food. As far into the 20th century as 1982 Jane Grigson writes that the “cantaloup” (more usually “cantaloupe”) is “what one thinks of as a melon from seventeenth-century paintings, craggy, sectioned into wedges, a thoroughly real-looking fruit that will catch your eye among its smooth relations”. (Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book. London, Michael Joseph, 1982.)
Below is the typical sort of still life she was thinking of: Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s “Abundant Still Life with a Parrot”, circa 1655. The cut melon is just off-centre, directly below the parrot. (See https://www.pubhist.com/w6914).
17th-century paintings wouldn’t spring to mind when most of us think of melons today!
John Evelyn’s Melon Soup?
The English have known melons for hundreds of years. In 1611, Randle Cotgrave mentions them in A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, a French/English dictionary with about 50,000 entries, which includes many proverbs as well as word definitions. The proverb he gives means, very roughly translated, that the outside of both melons and women doesn't tell you much:
“A peine cognoist on la femme, & le Melon” (The meaning is, vntill they be broken, or cut vp; and, the outside is often the best part of them.)”
French Proverbs from 1611, http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/proverbs/
It seems that melons were grown in England from the late Renaissance period, but not necessarily successfully. If you read Sean B. Palmer’s article, “Muskmelons and Pumpions”, you’ll find the question of early melon cultivation in England set in context as regards nomenclature, climate, and methodology. Palmer discerns that melons were “definitely grown in some capacity in England in the early 16th century.” He goes on to mention that “in Acetaria (1699), the diarist John Evelyn says of the melon to ‘Note, That this Fruit was very rarely cultivated in England, so as to bring it to Maturity, till Sir Geo. Gardner came out of Spain. I my self remembring, when an ordinary Melon would have been sold for five or six Shillings.’”
In her Food with the Famous (London, Michael Joseph, 1979; republished Penguin, 1981) Jane Grigson also quotes this passage from John Evelyn (1620-1706): it was much repeated by English writers on gardening or fruit before her, though no-one seems to mention who on earth “Sir Geo. Gardner” was! She gives a recipe for “Chilled Melon Soup” in her section on John Evelyn, but it is not a contemporary recipe at all: she notes “My excuse is that Evelyn had a partiality for melons.”
In England melons were eaten by the few who could afford them as part of a dainty dessert (not in a soup!) for several centuries. Here is Mrs Beeton in 1861 on "MELON" (from her Chapter 31, on “Preserves, Confectionary, Ices, and Dessert Dishes”):
“The melon is a most delicious fruit, succulent, cool, and high-flavoured. With us, it is used only at the dessert, and is generally eaten with sugar, ginger, or pepper; but, in France, it is likewise served up at dinner as a sauce for boiled meats. It grows wild in Tartary, and has been lately found in abundance on the sandy plains of Jeypoor. It was brought originally from Asia by the Romans, and is said to have been common in England in the time of Edward III., though it is supposed that it was lost again, as well as the cucumber, during the wars of York and Lancaster. The best kind, called the ‘Cantaloupe’, from the name of a place near Rome where it was first cultivated in Europe, is a native of Armenia, where it grows so plentifully that a horse-load may be bought for a crown.” [Five shillings.]
Where Did All The Melons Go?
As the article by Wesley Greene clearly indicates, melons were grown profusely in America for a long time, but they don’t seem to have surfaced in the standard New Zealand and Australian diets during the 19th century: Philip Muskett doesn’t mention them at all in The Art of Living in Australia, by Philip E. Muskett; Together With Three Hundred Australian Cookery Recipes and Accessory Kitchen Information by Mrs. H. Wicken (London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, ). He does mention fruit generally, approving the fact that it’s abundant in Australia, and noting:
“It is somewhat of a pity that fruit is not more ordinarily eaten at meals, particularly with the breakfast. There is an old proverb that fruit is gold in the morning, silver at noon, and lead at night; and it is undoubtedly a fact that it is especially beneficial when eaten early in the day. In France, fruit is a constant part of every meal, and there is no question but that such a proceeding is desirable. It was formerly the custom with English people at regular dinners to have dessert [which included fruit, as Mrs Beeton shows us] on the table all through the courses, but it is now more customary to present it at the termination of the repast, so that it is quite fresh and not saturated with odours absorbed from the soup, fish, etc.”
Er… yes? This somewhat muddled message isn’t precisely encouraging, and though Muskett pontificates on in his typical way for quite some time, mentioning by the by the peach, apricot, greengage, mulberry, currant and gooseberry, warning of the dangers of appendicitis if pips are swallowed, and offering us a lengthy dissertation on scurvy, he never mentions melons or advises which fruits to eat at what meals.
And Mrs Wicken gives no recipes for melons: the fruit is not mentioned throughout the book. In her “Cosmopolitan Salad” she lists “any fruits in season, such as oranges, mandarins, passion fruit, apricots, nectarines, pineapples, bananas, &c.” Today in Australia I think we’d automatically include some sort of melon.
In 19th-century Britain fresh fruit was a privilege of the wealthier classes, unless you lived in the country and grew your own. In Mrs Beeton’s time its presence on your dessert table signalled you’d made it socially. Here is her take on serving melons:
1559.—This fruit is rarely preserved or cooked in any way, and should be sent to table on a dish garnished with leaves or flowers, as fancy dictates. A border of any other kind of small fruit, arranged round the melon, has a pretty effect, the colour of the former contrasting nicely with the melon. Plenty of pounded sugar should be served with it; and the fruit should be cut lengthwise, in moderate-sized slices. In America, it is frequently eaten with pepper and salt.
(Isabella Beeton. The Book of Household Management. [London], S. O. Beeton, 1861)
That reference of Isabella’s to eating melon with pepper and salt in America possibly isn’t some sort of weird British myth; the idea crops up again in 1891, though without any specific geographical reference this time:
Melon is sometimes served abroad as a salad, and a slice of melon is often sent to table at the commencement of dinner, to be eaten with a little salt, cayenne pepper, and sometimes oil and vinegar.
(A. G. (Arthur Gay) Payne (1840-1894). Cassell's Vegetarian Cookery: A Manual of Cheap and Wholesome Diet. London, Cassell, 1891)
The notion of melon as a starter filtered through to the Colonies from Britain some time in the 1970s, I think. Usually with ginger, not cayenne! It was very popular at would-be up-market little dinner parties. But if you were extremely up-market and knowledgeable you served the melon peeled, sliced into small sticks, and rolled in the most expensive ham you could find: certainly by 1985 David Burton tells us: “Most people are familiar with rock melon and ham (preferably Parma ham, which is now available in New Zealand) as an Italian-type appetiser.” I never laid eyes on Parma ham in NZ back then, but then, I was pretty broke.
Was it Elizabeth David who introduced this Italian snack to the English-speaking world? Maybe it was. It certainly turns up in the section on “Antipasti e Insalate: Hors d’Oeuvre and Salads” in her Italian Food, first published in 1954. My copy is the 2nd edition (revised) in the Cookery Book Club edition printed in 1966, and I picked it up in New Zealand for 75 cents at a sale round about 1970. So much for cuisine! Maybe during the next 10 years or so “most people” got to know of the idea?
Here is what Elizabeth David writes:
Prosciutto di Parma: Parma Ham
A properly matured Parma ham should be of a good pale red colour, mild, sweet flavoured and tender, and at its best is the most delicious food in Italy.
To serve Parma ham have it cut in the thinnest possible slices. Serve fresh figs or slices of melon with it.
She doesn't tell us what sort of melon, either here or in the introductory section to this chapter. Here’s the picture which opens the chapter: your guess is probably better than mine:
For a more modern take on melon salad than Mr Payne’s of 1891, try this:
Honeydew Melon with Salad Burnet And Ham
Serves 6. A cool first course for a hot-weather meal.
1 honeydew melon, cut into 6 segments and peeled;
6 thin slices ham (preferably smoked), fat and rind removed;
6 lettuce leaves, washed and dried;
a few sprays of salad burnet
Arrange the lettuce leaves and the melon segments on 6 small plates with the ham slices. Pull the burnet leaves from the central stem and scatter about a dozen over each melon slice.
Serve chilled, with French dressing and freshly ground pepper.
(Rosemary Hemphill. Herbs For All Seasons. Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1972)
My reprint of this book dates from 1975. Some time in the mid-1970s I did grow salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor, previously Poterium sanguisorba): I had to source the seeds from a specialist provider. If you can manage to grow your own, I can recommend it as a lovely herb. Always eat the daintily fretted leaves fresh, never cooked, and never dried. They have a cool, delicately fresh taste of cucumber!
This picture from Amédée Masclef’s Atlas des plantes de France, 1891, is the best illustration I could find of the blue-green of salad burnet’s leaves. It’s from Wikimedia Commons. The other pictures there are too grassy-green.
The Modern Dainty Dessert
By the 1980s “rock melons” (whatever they were!) were well established in New Zealand. I’ve found plenty of recipes which combine them, or other types of melon, with yogurt, but though I like it with lots of other fruits I don’t care for it with melons. This recipe from 1985 appeals more to me:
Rock Melon with Maraschino and Ice Cream
1 medium rock melon; 2-3 tablespoons maraschino;
600 ml vanilla ice cream
Slice melon in two, remove seeds and either scoop out melon into balls or cube neatly. Pour over maraschino and leave 3-4 hours.
Serve in individual glasses or bowls with alternate layers of ice cream, making sure a melon layer is at the top. –Serves 6.
(David Burton. Delectable Fruits Cookery for New Zealanders. Auckland, Reed Methuen, 1985)
It’s nice, but frankly, my favourite is still the good old sprinkle of powdered ginger. The bite and tang of the ginger balances out the sometimes smothering “musk” aroma of rock melon. And the melon has such a distinctive taste that it tends to overpower anything else you combine with it.
The Other Kind of Melon
The watermelon is the only type of sweet melon that we eat today that doesn't belong to the species Cucumis melo. It’s related, but it belongs to a different genus entirely. Its name is Citrullus lanatus. In popular culture we might identify it with the Deep South of America, but the plant originated in Africa. Jane Grigson suggests that the slaves might have brought the seeds with them to America. She claims that “the first written record of its cultivation is in Massachusetts in 1569.” (Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book, op. cit.).
I don’t remember watermelon at all in New Zealand until I was grown up. We were probably, as was usual right up into the 1970s, following Britain’s example. “Water-melons”, writes Jane Grigson in 1982, “are a new pleasure.” (Ibid.) By the 1980s, however, we got them every summer and David Burton certainly doesn’t treat them as one of his new or “less common” fruits in New Zealand. The recipe below, written in 1981, is an early version of what has come to be known as a “smoothie.” The modern version would probably add the ice blocks to the blender. (By this time we also had blenders—those of us who could afford them.)
1 lb (500 g) watermelon; 1 tablespoonful natural yoghurt;
1 tablespoonful honey
Remove the skin from the watermelon and cut the fruit into chunks. Take out all the seeds.
Put all the ingredients in a blender and blend for 1 minute.
Serve with ice.
(Jeffrey Thomas. Drinks For a Southern Summer: A New Zealand Recipe Book. Wellington, N.Z., Port Nicholson Press, 1981)
The Careful Housewife, Or, Barely Surviving
Because they’ve been growing watermelons for 400-odd years, the Americans have discovered many possible ways of using them in cookery. With the advent of canning and convenience food, these traditional recipes began to disappear, but by the last quarter of the 20th century they were being rediscovered and revived.
I think it might have been my friend Susan’s old Grandma, who came from Northumberland, who explained to us that “careful” in the north of Britain is what the rest of the country calls “mean.” She certainly used the expression “careful” when I saved the rind I’d cut off the bacon in her shiny American kitchen with its huge appliances!
In the past the careful housewife, who didn’t have all those shiny appliances, nor much money to spend, either, would make use of what she had, and so in the U.S. watermelon rinds, which were plentiful, were not thrown away but turned into pickles.
Yes, I have made watermelon pickle, and it was delicious, though quite a lot of work. It’s the white part of the melon that’s used, between the green skin and the pink flesh.
This first recipe is a genuine old one, dating from the 19th century, when the writer’s mother used it:
Pickled Watermelon Rind
Pare off the green rind and all the pink, using just the white of the melon. Cut into large squares. Cover with water, and put in a pinch of alum. Let stand twenty-four hours.
Pour off the water and drain.
Take enough vinegar to cover, add one teaspoonful of whole allspice, cloves and white mustard seed, and pour over the rind boiling hot. Heat the vinegar three mornings in succession, and pour over the rind while hot.
It will be ready for use in a week.
(Lydia Maria Gurney. The Things Mother Used To Make: A Collection of Old Time Recipes, Some Nearly One Hundred Years Old and Never Published Before. New York, Frank A. Arnold, 1914)
The modern recipe below is the one I’ve used with success. You need to start the day before you intend to bottle it. Bottle it in sterilised jam jars. This amount makes about 8 16-ounce (450 g) jars. You can do a much smaller amount if you prefer: just be sure to use a heavy-bottomed saucepan.
1/2 watermelon rind (about 3 1/2 lb or 1 1/4 kg), prepared;
1/2 cup salt; cold water - 4 cups; 5 cups sugar;
3 cups vinegar; 2 thin lemon slices; 2 thin lime slices;
5 pieces stick cinnamon (1 large piece, broken up);
1 tablespoon whole cloves; 1 dessertspoon whole cardamoms;
1 tablespoon whole allspice
1. The day before: Slice watermelon. Cut pink flesh into cubes to use for fruit salad. Peel off green skin and discard. Cut watermelon rind into small cubes. (You will have about 3 1/2 pounds or 10 cups.)
2. Combine rind with salt and 4 cups cold water [or to cover] in a large bowl. Cover bowl with a towel. Leave to soak overnight.
3. The next day: Drain watermelon rind. Cover rind with fresh water in a heavy saucepan or preserving pan.
4. Heat to boiling. Simmer until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain.
5. Mix sugar, vinegar, lemon and lime slices and add to the empty pan. Tie spices in a piece of cheesecloth. Add to sugar mixture.
6. Heat to just boiling. Cook over low heat 20 minutes, or until thickened and syrupy. Do not let it brown.
7. Add cooked rind, a cup at a time. Simmer slowly 20 minutes or more, until rind is clean and glossy.
8. Remove spice bag. Spoon into hot sterilized jars, filling jars to top with syrup, and seal.
(Based on: “Watermelon Pickles, Number 1”, Vicki Willder. In a Pickle or a Jam. [Des Moines, Iowa], Creative Home Library, )
You will see the rind change its appearance as it cooks in the sugar mixture. Cooking with the sugar is the tricky bit: don’t try to hurry it by turning the heat up, either when first cooking it or when the rind is in, or the sugar will burn and spoil it.
Serve the pickle with ham: it’s at its best with a salted meat. But also nice with cold sliced chicken or pork. Or, of course, the cold turkey leftovers!
A Little Clutch of Cocktails
If you’re up-market these days you may well serve a fancy cocktail which incorporates some kind of melon. Even vegetarians do it! Many of the recipes use watermelon—it’s easy to disintegrate in your expensive blender. Or if you’re really up-market, serve it from your own marble-topped bar with its array of special bar implements, including a “muddler”! Drink it by your giant swimming pool on your giant cantilevered terrace overlooking your great ocean view. Yeah.
Easy Watermelon Martini
1 (1.5 fluid ounce) jigger vodka;
1/2 cup ice cubes, or as needed
Place watermelon in a cocktail shaker and crush with a muddler; add ice cubes and vodka. Cover shaker and shake well. Strain cocktail into a martini glass.
The next two come from the online list at BuzzFeed: “24 Refreshing Melon Cocktails To Try This Summer”, which sources them from various sites.
Honeydew Melon Bellini
5 cups of diced honeydew melon, about 1/2 of a large melon;
2 tablespoons lime juice;
Sugar to taste based on the sweetness of the melon;
1 bottle of chilled prosecco, champagne, cava or other sparkling wine
Combine the diced honeydew melon with the lime juice and sugar in a blender and blend until you obtain a smooth puree.
Strain the puree, chill for at least 30 minutes or until ready to use.
Pour the honeydew melon puree into champagne flutes, no more than half full.
Add the prosecco or other sparkling wine, pouring it gently to avoid making a bubbly mess.
Stir lightly and serve immediately.
Melon and Mint Mojitos
1/2 cup honeydew melon; 1/2 cup cantaloupe melon;
4-6 fresh mint leaves, plus more for garnish;
1 1/2 oz. rum [white, e.g. Bacardi]; 2 tablespoons simple syrup;
juice of 1/2 lime; club soda [soda water]
In a blender, pulse the honeydew and cantaloupe until roughly pureed. Add the mint leaves and pulse just until the leaves are broken up.
In a cocktail shaker or mason jar [large preserving jar], add some ice, melon puree, rum, simple syrup, and lime juice. Secure lid, and shake vigorously. In a glass, pour the mixture over ice and top with club soda. Add a few more mint leaves and a slice of lime for garnish if you prefer. Drink right away.
Note: Simple Syrup is made by dissolving equal parts water and sugar, and bringing to a simmer.
(By Erin Indahl-Fink. Delightful E Made)
Those are all American recipes. But just to prove the revival of the melon in the form of up-market drinkies has well and truly spread to the Antipodes, here’s an Aussie one. It’s not as pretty, but the taste sensation is guaranteed!
200 ml rockmelon juice, strained (about 1/2 rockmelon);
60 ml brandy; zest 1 lime;
100 ml champagne or sparkling wine
Place the juice, brandy and lime zest in a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice. Shake well and strain into two or three glasses. Top up with sparkling wine and serve immediately.
(By Luke Mangan. GoodFood)
And for something brand-new and different, try Heidi Swanson’s “Watermelon Poke”, a savoury fruit salad recipe, dated July 14, 2018: