I've a passion for melons right now, and the shops are beginning to stock some deliciously juicy, and, most importantly, ripe ones!
As well as tasting amazing, melons are one of the most healthy fuel sources in that they are simple carbohydrates, that is, they digest quickly and easily, and contains lots of nutrients. For example, the USDA Nutrient Database tells us that a cantaloupe melon scores highly on: Vitamin C (three times RDA), Vitamin A (120% of RDA) and potassium (92% of RDA). It does well on: magnesium (22% ofRDA), Vitamin B1 (16%), Vitamin B3 (26%) and Vitamin B6 (20%). It contains small amounts (5-10% of RDA) of calcium, iron, zinc, Vitamins B2 and B5, and Vitamin E, and also includes 18 amino-acids from which our bodies make protein, and essential fatty acids in trace amounts. (And the 'cantaloupe' and pale-fleshed type melons are also the only fruits I can think of that are relatively high in sodium which make them a good source of sodium for those who prefer not to add salt to their food.)
And that's just cantaloupe! Melon nutritional profiles will vary, for example watermelon is particularly high in lycopene.
Anne Osborne, author of 'Fruitarianism, The Path to Paradise' has spent three periods in her life eating nothing but melon for months! Although her melon diets did include different sorts of melon, she did find that even when she ate one type alone for a while she would 'each day experience a myriad of new taste sensations.' Although conventional nutritionists would issue all sorts of dire warnings about such a diet, Anne says 'During my time on melons, my health and energy levels were always excellent and my weight remained at a stable 112 pounds.' And, on day 47 of a melon diet Anne came first in a walkathon out of 4000 people!
I had (just) a day 'mono-eating' melon exclusively recently. My energy level was high all day (from 4.30 am when I rose, to going to bed after an evening's salsa dancing), my tummy felt wonderfully calm, and it was dead flat throughout.)
Melons are best eaten alone. Of course, they are so delicious that who would dream of detracting from their delicate and beautiful flavour by combining them with other foods? (Well, OK, for those who would, 'food combining' principles for optimal digestion back me up here - melon is so quick to digest that if you mix it with, or eat it shortly after, food that is harder to digest than the melon (which is virtually any food, including most fruit), its exit will be blocked, meaning it will have to hang around, and it will ferment...and...blow-up! So, if you don't want the six months' pregnant look and some pain, eat me-lon a-lone.
But, melons..can get a bit confusing sometimes with all the different types, and it's so disappointing to come home and find you've got a dud one - one that's so unripe we hurt our hands trying to get a spoon into it it's that hard, and find the outer half of it so lacking in sweetness it might as well be a cucumber, or a squash. Melons, officially, do not ripen off the plant - they're non-climacteric. Some people do maintain that they improve after a few days, but this is basically softening due to decomposition rather than ripening, and they're unlikely to become any sweeter. A truly ripe melon is one that is sweet and flavoursome, where all the flesh is soft and edible, that is, none needs to be left in the rind hard and inedible. I think that optimal state comes a matter of hours before it starts to ferment; it is in fact rare to find a melon at that sublime stage of perfection, but when that time comes....oh...wow!
We have three options available to us if we've bought an unripe melon. We could...eat the whole thing because it cost a fortune. Snag - our bodies don't welcome unripe fruit and it will be a somewhat frustrating experience. We could...throw it away. Snag - money wasted. Or we could...(best option) take it back to the shop (or market) and complain. The more of us who do that the more it increases the chance of the shop stocking ripe melons in future. And if it's a chain, follow it up with an e-mail to the fruit buyer at the shop's head office.
In this article, I'll be sorting through the different types of melon, or at least those available in the UK. They come from all over the world - Southern Europe, Africa, Americas - basically any part of the world that can be sure of at least a few months of hot weather each year can grow melons. And, as melons won't ripen once picked, I'll offer tests for ripeness that should (at least for any of you 'so-so' about melons due to mediocre experiences of the past) raise your melon-eating to another level!
There are three main groups of melon:
- Orange-flesh (eg cantaloupe, charentaise)
- Pale-flesh (eg galia, honeydew, piel de sapo)
- Watermelon (in a class of its own!)
Orange-flesh melons all fall within the 'canteloupe' type. What they have in common is that (generally) they are relatively small, round, and have orange flesh. The aroma is 'perfumed' (the cantaloupe type have historically been referred to as 'muskmelons'), they taste beautifully sweet, and the discriminating palate (ie my readers) will detect beta-carotene.
Sometimes they'll be called 'cantaloupe' ('rockmelon' in Australia) and sometimes Charentais (the flavours are similar). In my experience, cantaloupe usually have rough, 'netted' skin, but can be ribbed/striped or plain. Charentais are always ribbed and have either netted, or relatively smooth skin. 'Cantaloupe types' are often pale grey-green, but sometimes cream or yellow-brown.
Thanks to Anne Osborne for this quote from Saint-Amant, writing in the 17th century about Charentais melons: 'This melon is...better than strawberries and cream, better than the Holy pear of Tours or the sweet green fig. Even the Muscat grape I love is bitterness and muck compared to this divine melon. O sweet grassy snake, crawling on a green bed. It is Apollo's masterpiece. The brothels of Rouen will be free of the pox...tobacco smokers will have white teeth...I will forget my love's flavours before I forget you - O fleur de tous les fruits! O ravisant MELON!'
(I think he liked them.)
Ripeness test: the skin may be tinted orange (though I've had many ripe ones where this hasn't been the case). The 'cantaloupe' type melons are ripe when they give a little (just a little) at one end and a sweet aroma emanates from the base. Stores will often label them 'ripe' before this stage, but they're not. They may taste pleasant, but will be so much softer and sweeter when ripe.
Fruitarian Anne Osbourne says that 'big-bottomed melons' tend to be riper (and please see Comments at the foot of the article for other tests of ripeness.)
Be wary of an 'all-over' softness (rather than just at the base) as, especially if accompanied with lack of aroma or an aroma that isn't sweet, as this is usually an indication that the melon has simply been on the shelf for a while, that is, it has started to rot. Any type of melon that is past its best can result in discomfort via gas and 'blow-up', and even pain....(I've been here.)
The Galia has yellow/green rough skin and looks a little like a 'canteloupe type' from the outside, although generally bigger. The flesh is pale green with a flavour somewhere between a cantaloupe and a honeydew.
Ripeness test: The skin will be more yellow than green, and the base fragrant.
In the UK, the melon that most of us from childhood have tended to associate most with 'melon'. Bright yellow smooth skin. Pale yellow/green flesh. Rugby ball (American football) shape. If the petrol station has any melons, they'll be Honeydews! And I'm wondering if that's why I've detected just a wee bit of snobbery in raw food circles about the Honeydew. I must admit I've tended to pass over it a bit in recent years in favour of the more unusual types, but I've recently rediscovered Honeydews and feel very apologetic to them for having ignored them for so long, as a good Honeydew always has been, and still is...exquisite!
Ripeness test: in general, I've found supermarkets are better at buying ripe Honeydews than ripe cantaloupes and around 75% of those I've bought have been good. Unlike cantaloupes, sniffing is not generally helpful - the ripe honeydews I've had have had no smell from the outside. Some feel that if a faint knock/rattle can be heard on shaking the melon that indicates loose seeds and therefore ripeness, but I can't say I've found this to be a reliable indicator myself. Someone did say to me recently that a slight 'give' at the base, as for orange-fleshed melons, can be an indicator of ripeness, but I think that, with the Honeydew, in general you just have to take your chances...!
Piel de Sapo
Same shape as the Honeydew, but with a skin of various mid/dark green hues (Piel de Sapo translates as 'toad skin'). Pale yellow/green flesh. I remember the first time I had a Piel de Sapo, and felt I had never in my life tasted anything so delicious. So I went back to the supermarket and bought two more. I then learned that the first one I'd had had been at the peak of ripeness. The subsequent two weren't.
Ripeness test: look for patches of yellow on the skin.
I've found the best watermelons to have vivid red flesh and black seeds. We've had anaemic pale pink virtually seedless ones at times, and they've been flavourless and unripe (I did have one with yellow flesh at Raw Spirit Festival, Sedona, US, and it tasted good!).
Most watermelons on sale in the UK are relatively small, round 'mini' watermelons. But I did buy a huge oval-shaped one at a farmers' market in San Diego, US, and I've only found one watermelon in the UK that has come anywhere near it for flavour. That was one bought one week in winter at Waitrose. But before you all in the south of the UK go rushing out, I'm afraid that the next week the watermelons were all very average again. Watermelons - bit of a lottery here.
Beware of watermelons that have been mucked about with. I've heard that seedless watermelons are the product of crossing a 'female tetrapoid' plant (itself the product of genetic manipulation) with 'diploid pollen'. Also, plant geneticists (I do have more information on this if required) are developing low-sugar, high-lycopene watermelons. This is because fruit gets a bad press with diabetics (for a positive assessment of fruit re diabetes see here) but lycopene has been identified as a (prostate) 'cancer fighter'. One 'food technologist' has noticed that 'People like to eat red watermelon. They associate a pale-pink colour with unripe melon.' (Um, yes...) And, yes, they're busy developing a 'commercially acceptable, low-sugar, high-pigment watermelon.' One geneticist is reported as saying that people can use artificial sweeteners if they wish to 'full duplicate the taste found in regular watermelon.' Well, whoopy-doos! Doesn't it make you crying?
Watermelon has been the subject of various research studies extolling its various health benefits (eg 'like Viagra', lowers blood pressure etc). I am sure all of these things are true, just as I believe they would be true for all sorts of other fruits that haven't yet been given the benefit of a research grant.
There are various tests of ripeness. The watermelon should be very heavy, and, when tapped, emit a hollow sound. Problem with that of course is that if all the watermelons on the shelf are at the same degree of ripeness, they'll all feel the same and sound the same, and I haven't had much success with that method. Some say that the larger and yellower the yellow patch at the base of the watermelon is, the riper it is. The tip that's worked for me recently (thanks to 'Dream' of the 30BananasaDay forum) is to scratch the peel. If it comes off quite easily, the melon is ripe. (If it comes off very easily it might be a bit mealy and past its best - and definitely don't buy if it 'gives' all over - watermelons should be firm. ).You'll know for certain when you put the knife in. If it falls apart easily, the flesh is vibrant red and firm, you've got a beauty. The ripest watermelons can be bashed and literally pulled apart with hands - so I'm told - we don't get them like that in the UK!
GROWING YOUR OWN?
If you live somewhere with long hot summers, where melons are grown, no problem - just buy some seeds of the melons that are known to be suited to your particular climate. I understand that seeds saved from melons you've bought just aren't the ticket, as they're hybridized and won't grow 'true to type'. But, when you buy seeds, ask if they're 'open pollinated heirloom', varieties, as the seeds from melons you grow from those can be used the following year.
As to whether melons can be grown in the UK and similar cool climates. Well, they can, sometimes, possibly...definitely by experts in greenhouses, and sometimes by non-experts in greenhouses. But it does seem that at least three months of hot weather is needed. As we do very occasionally have summers like that in the UK, I'll be ordering some melon seeds and will have a go.
I hope I've inspired you to go off your local supermarket, organic co-op, farmers market, and ...load up with melons. And forget a 'slice' of melon, or even half. Make a MEAL of melon today!
(I'm attending this one - would be great to see you there!)
80/10/10 Spring Gathering '09 and Simply Delicious Culinary Skills Workshop
Saturday 9th May 2009, 9 am - 7 pm
Learn the secrets to making beautiful, delicious, raw, high-fruit meals. Discover how to entertain your loved ones with gourmet 811 dishes. This 'hands-on' seminar with Dr Doug Graham will change the way you eat your dinner meal forever.
£100 includes fruit lunch and 'exotic' dinner.
Trinity Methodist Church, Thakeham Rd, Storrington, Sussex RH20 3NG.
Contact http://www.foodnsport.com/ for more information.