What the Angels Eat

August 16, 2012

sites/default/files/melon_sliced_0.jpgBy Janet McGarry

On chilly summer days, San Francisco residents are fond of quoting Mark Twain’s alleged quip that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. The famed author also had strong feelings about a delicious summer fruit cultivated in warmer, sunnier parts of the state—the watermelon. Twain gushed, “It is chief of this world’s luxuries, king by the grace of God over all the fruits of the earth. When one has tasted it, he knows what the angels eat.”

Unfortunately, many melons sold in American supermarkets don’t live up to Twain’s celestial description. While aesthetically pleasing, with perfectly round shapes and thick, unblemished rinds, mass-produced melons are often picked before they are fully ripe so they’re firm enough to withstand travel, which can leave a bland taste in one’s mouth. But at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, local farmers offer more than 20 varieties of melons, selected primarily for their flavor rather than appearance or ability to ship well.

Melons are thick-skinned, sweet-fleshed fruits in the Cucurbitaceae family, making them relatives of cucumbers, summer squash, and pumpkins. Although often lumped together, most melons sold in the United States fall into two categories: watermelons and muskmelons.

Watermelons are native to Africa, where they are a vital source of nutrition and water because of their drought resistance. Archaeologists have discovered watermelon seeds and leaves as well as drawings of watermelons in Egyptian tombs from thousands of years ago. Indigenous people of the Kalahari Desert traditionally traveled only during melon season, relying on wild watermelons to serve as “botanical canteens” on their journeys through arid lands. Melons spread from Africa via trade routes and were brought to the New World by African slaves and European colonists.

sites/default/files/chanterais_melons.jpgMuskmelons include popular varieties such as cantaloupes, honeydews, and casabas. However, what most Americans know as a “cantaloupe” is a misnomer. True cantaloupes are common in Europe but rare in the United States. One of the true cantaloupes is the Charentais melon (pictured at right), a grapefruit-sized fruit with orange flesh and striped yellowish skin. Heirloom melon expert Amy Goldman waxes poetic about it in her book Melons for the Passionate Grower: “The scent is divine, the flavor ambrosial.” A handful of Ferry Plaza farmers grow the Charentais, so keep your eyes peeled.

There are many other unusual varieties to be found at the market in the summer and fall. For over 30 years, Lucero Organic Farms has grown specialty melons with exotic and tantalizing names such as Noir de Carmes, Haogen, Amarillo Oro, Moon and Stars, Sugar Baby, and Crimson Sweet.

After a 20-year career in the military, Curtis Lucero returned to the family farm to work with his father, Ben, and Ben’s wife, Karen. In December 2010, the Luceros expanded their farm by purchasing land in the Sacramento Delta. The 40-acre parcel was so overgrown that “it looked like a jungle with nothing but pure weeds,” Curtis recalls. “You couldn’t even see the ground.” Undaunted by the weeds, Ben and Curtis prepared the field and planted four acres of melons, which has yielded a great crop this summer. Melons thrive in hot climates like the Delta because the high temperatures produce the sugary taste melon eaters crave. Curtis explains, “The hotter, the sweeter.”

In addition to heat, proper watering is crucial to melon development. Heavy watering is needed in the early flowering stages, but once melons have developed to about 80 percent of their full size, they should be watered just one last time before they are picked. Ripe melons will split open in the field if they are overwatered.

sites/default/files/curtis_lucero_watermelons.jpgBringing care to the harvesting process, Curtis trains his workers to choose only those melons that are ripe and ready to eat. The melons are carefully packed to prevent damage as they travel over rough roads; some melons have thin skins and can easily split if they are bumped or jostled. The melons are sold at market the day after they are picked. “There is nothing like a fresh-picked melon,” raves Curtis. 

When choosing melons, look for fruits that are heavy for their size, a sign that they are loaded with juicy flesh. For some melons, like cantaloupes, the blossom end should yield to a bit of pressure but not be too hard or soft. The “press test” does not work with watermelons or other melons with thick rinds. Instead, you can use a sound test: a ripe watermelon makes a dull plunk sound when knocked gently with knuckles. Many ripe melons will also have a strong fragrance.

Most Americans are used to enjoying melons at breakfast or barbecues, but melons also lend themselves well to salads, cold soups, and drinks. In other parts of the world, such as Asia, melons are cooked. Their dried or roasted seeds are eaten as snacks in Asia and Africa, and ground into flour to make bread in India. Russians ferment watermelon juice to create an alcoholic beverage. And any Southerner will tell you that watermelon rinds make great pickles. For recipes and a full list of melon varieties and the farmers who grow them, click here.

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