French Flavours: Melon

Nothing speaks of summer like the scent wafting from a market stall piled high with melons...

Food critic and cookbook author Rosa Jackson moved to France from Canada in 1995 and has since written for publications worldwide. She now divides her time between running the personalised food itinerary service Edible Paris; and running the cooking school Les Petits Farcis in Nice.

Nothing speaks of summer like the scent wafting from a market stall piled high with melons. Sweet as honey and refreshing as an iced cocktail on the beach, this is the most boldly seductive of summer fruits – and also the most versatile. At the peak of its season, melon appears in my kitchen almost every day, though rarely in wedges at the end of a meal. The creamy-skinned cantaloupe with green stripes, sometimes covered with a lacy pattern, has dominated French market stalls since the 15th century, when Charles VIII introduced the first plants from Italy. Already popular during Greek and Roman times, it was first cultivated around the town of Cantalupo near Rome. Nowadays, the town most celebrated for its cantaloupe melons is Cavaillon, not far from Avignon. Some mystical combination of Mediterranean climate and soil means that Cavaillon melon seeds planted elsewhere don’t taste quite the same. Drive through Provence in summer and you will see melons heaped up at stalls by the side of the road, some so ripe that they are bursting at the seams. A closer look reveals that not all Cavaillon melons look alike: each year a list of varieties, both smooth-skinned and webbed, is approved for the melon de Cavaillon label. To confuse things further, Cavaillon melons belong to a family of fruit called charentais, the commonly used word for French cantaloupes. Smooth-skinned cantaloupes are the most aromatic, while the webbed variety travels well. Subtle differences between varieties aside, the most important thing to look for is ripeness. First, I examine the stem, which should be coming away from the fruit with a crack around its base. Then, I pick it up and sniff the other end, which should give off a strong scent of fruit but not smell like alcohol, which would mean that the melon is overripe and starting to ferment. Finally, I take a look at the skin, which should be veering towards yellow, but not be streaked with brown. If you feel uncertain about judging a melon for yourself, ask the vendor, who should be expert at determining its stage of ripeness. Be prepared to specify not just the day you will be eating it, but also the time. Once in your possession, the melon is a bit like a toddler that refuses to be ignored. Leave it in the fruit bowl and it will soon fill the kitchen with its heady scent; put it in the refrigerator and it will transfer its flavour to other foods. Refrigerate a melon only if it has reached optimum ripeness and you can’t use it immediately; in this case, wrap it in plastic or place it in a sealed container to stop its aroma from taking over. You might like to chill your melon for an hour before eating it, but beware of ice-cold melon, which is said to be hard to digest. In France, melon most often comes at the beginning of the meal, again for reasons relating to digestion. A perfect melon might be served on its own, simply cut in half with its seeds scooped out, or doused in its hollow with port, a classic match that comes from Portugal. As the Italians have long known, the silky texture and saltiness of cured ham perfectly balances the melon’s soft sweetness. My favourite way to use melon is in a colourful summer salad that might also include prawns, goat’s cheese, cucumber or tomato. More unusually, try pan-frying slices of melon with a touch of honey to serve with chicken, fish or duck. For dessert, I like to combine melon with other fruits, especially berries, rather than serve it on its own. It also takes well to herbs and spices, particularly mint, verbena, basil, ginger and pepper. I first tasted a zingy salad of melon, ginger and lime on a summer night at Le Comptoir du Relais in Paris, and it turned out to be easy to recreate at home. All you need is a melon baller, though a Japanese ginger grater (available at Muji) is also a good tool if you’re inclined to buy gadgets.