Melons 101: A Farmers Market Guide
Janet McGarry, CUESA Volunteer
July 19, 2018
Summer brings more than 20 different types of delicious, succulent melons to the farmers market. Local farmers choose rare and heirloom varieties and let them slowly mature on their vines until perfectly ripe so that their sweet, subtle tastes can be savored as summer slips into fall. Bursting with juice and flavor, these stars of summer are dead-ripe and delicate, nothing like the bland, hard melons found off-season in supermarkets and dreary hotel buffets throughout the rest of the year.
Melons are members of the Cucurbitaceae family, which makes them relatives of squashes and cucumbers. Although often grouped together, most sweet melons fall into two broad categories: watermelons (Citrillus lanatus) and muskmelons (Cucumus melo).
Watermelons are easy to identify, but muskmelons come in many varieties including honeydews, cantaloupes, and all the melons in the three groups (cantalupensis, reticulatus, inodorus) described below. Don’t be confused by the American custom of referring to cantaloupes as muskmelons: all cantaloupes are muskmelons but not all muskmelons are cantaloupes.
When choosing a melon, you’ll use most of your senses: sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste. Seek out symmetrical melons with a “filled-out” look. Weight offers hints about taste: a melon that feels heavy for its size holds lots of juicy flesh. Melons don’t become sweeter after harvesting, but the texture and aroma can continue to improve.
First, look at the stem scar. A smooth, hollowed scar indicates that the melon was harvested ripe. If a piece of the stem remains, it may have been harvested too early. For thinner-skinned melons, exert very gentle pressure on the base of the melon opposite the stem end. If the skin is easy to depress, the melon is ideal for eating. A musky aroma, produced by enzymes that generate more than 200 different esters, also signals ripeness.
A ripe watermelon has dull, not shiny, skin, and the lighter colored part of the rind, where the melon rested on the ground, should be yellow or creamy, not green or white. A light tap to the rind should produce a hollow sound.
Delicious on their own, melons add sweetness to salads, cold soups, drinks, and sorbets. Although melons are refreshing when served chilled, refrigeration diminishes their flavor so serving at room temperature is ideal. Or try grilling them: cooking concentrates their sugars.
12 Melons to Try
In peak summer, you’ll find more variety at the farmers market than you will at most grocery stores. Here are some of the more common melons, organized by group, that you will find at our farmers markets.
Cantaloupes (cantalupensis): True cantaloupe melons, different from the American cantaloupe, are common in Europe, particularly France. Most are small and spherical with prominent ribs, resembling a beach ball.
Charentais: The French Charentais is known for the divine flavor and ambrosial fragrance of its sweet, juicy, salmon-orange flesh. The size of a grapefruit, with light gray-green, smooth skin, and slight ribs, Charentais is the perfect size for two people.
Ha’Ogen: Named for the Kibbutz Ha’Ogen in Israel where it was commercialized, Ha’Ogen is originally from Hungary. Weighing around 3 to 4 pounds, Ha’Ogen has light green flesh with a fruity, tropical flavor. Its delicate, mottled green skin turns yellow as it matures. Try sprinkling paprika, sweet or hot, on melons, like the Hungarians do.
Netted melons (reticulatus): Reticulatus melons have rinds covered with a netlike, or “reticulated,” tissue that stands out from the surface. Dense, uniformly distributed netting and musky aroma are signs of ripeness.
Ambrosia: Ambrosia’s flavor lives up to its name! This melon’s very sweet, pale orange flesh has floral nuances and a texture so smooth and juicy it melts in your mouth. Its heavenly taste goes well with salty prosciutto, salami, and cheeses.
Ananas: This rare heirloom from the 1800s is originally from the Middle East. Ananas are oval shaped with firm, juicy, white flesh and a pale green to orange netted rind. Ananas means “pineapple” in French, a nod to hints of ripe pineapple flavor in its aromatic flesh.
Cantaloupe: Americans use the misnomer “cantaloupe” when referring to this small netted melon in the reticulatus group–not a true cantaloupe. High in vitamins A and C, American “cantaloupes” are some of the most nutritious melons.
Galia: Another Israeli melon, Galia is a hybrid cross of Ha’Ogen and the Russian melon Krymka. Galia has pale green flesh with a spicy, sweet flavor and a banana-like aroma. Look for orange hues in the skin, a sign of high sugar content. Galias pair well with ginger or mint.
Sharlyn: Shaped like an elongated cantaloupe with orange skin, Sharlyn has a more restrained, less sugary flavor than a cantaloupe with a smoother texture. Sharlyn goes well with yogurt, sheep’s milk cheese, and vanilla.
Winter melons (inodorus): Winter melons have hard rinds, are less perishable, and have little or no fragrance due to low ester-enzyme activity. They tend to be bigger and ripen more slowly than other melons.
Canary: Named for its bright yellow skin, the oval-shaped Canary melon has a hard rind with a corrugated look and slightly waxy feel. Its pale green to cream-colored flesh has a mild, slightly tangy flavor and a texture similar to a ripe pear. Originally from Persia, Canary melons pair well with citrus and herbs, such as basil and cilantro, and are good for making sorbets and granitas.
Casaba: From Kasaba, Turkey, the Casaba has a thick, furrowed rind that turns bright yellow as it ripens. Its pale green to white flesh is mellower than most melons with hints of cucumber or Asian pear flavor. Casaba’s milder flavor blends nicely with curry and coconut milk.
Crane: For over 150 years, six generations of Cranes have perfected this melon on their Santa Rosa farm by crossing Japanese, Persian, Ambrosia, and other varieties. The Crane melon is part of Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, a collection of distinctive foods facing extinction. (Photo by John Loo.)
Honeydew: Honeydews have higher sugar content than either watermelons or American cantaloupes. As a honeydew ripens, its rind develops a sticky, velvety feel.
Piel de Sapo: Popular in Spain, this oval-shaped melon got its Spanish name “toad skin” from its thick, blotched green peel. Its soft, juicy flesh is pale yellow-green with a subtle flavor similar to honeydew. Its ability to store for weeks explains its other name, “the Santa Claus melon,” because it keeps until Christmas!
Watermelons: The almost 50 varieties of watermelons are similar in taste but vary in size, flesh color (mostly pink or red but also yellow, white, and orange), and whether they are seedless or seeded. Red flesh is rich in the antioxidant lycopene–the highest per serving of any fruit or vegetable. Watermelon can be pickled, candied, fermented, or made into a syrup, and its sprouted seeds are a nutty tasting, protein-rich snack.
Savor melon season! For a list of which of our farms grow which types of melons, visit the CUESA website.