It took me seven years to successfully harvest my first Charentais melon. Seven years of trial and error, trying to grow a fruit that technically should be almost impossible to cultivate in my short-season growing zone. But even had it taken me another four-score, I still wouldn’t have complained.
When the Charentais melon patch begins to ripen in the garden, one smells their honey fragrance before spotting their gray-green skin. There’s only about a one-day window to pick a perfectly ripened Charentais melon. The timespan between “not-ripe” and “bad melon wine” seems to last only a matter of hours.
The perfect Charentais, according to French custom, has exactly 10 dark green stripes circling it’s grey-green rind. Not 9. Not 11. Only fruits with 10 stripes have the fullest flavor. Cutting into its rosy orange flesh is like slicing a ripe peach. And the taste? Better than any cantaloupe you’ve ever eaten. I can actually guarantee this because you’ve probably never even tasted a true cantaloupe. The styrofoam dreariness of “cantaloupes” sold in North America aren’t technically even cantaloupes. They’re muskmelons. And nothing with the word “musk” in it has ever tasted good. (With the possible exception of the phrase: “a shirtless, sweaty, musky, Brad Pitt wiped his brow before leaning in for a kiss.” I think that would probably taste okay.)
So what does a real cantaloupe, like the Charentais, taste like? Think of the ripest melon you’ve ever eaten, then add a little nutmeg, roasted banana and a drop of rose water. Maybe a little nectariney-ness. Definitely a soupçon of Amaretto. Sound good? Well, tough. I’m not sharing mine.
I experienced my first Charentais melon where everyone should experience it – at its birthplace in the South of France. In fact I believe that all humans should experience their first bites of everything in the South of France. Seriously. Steamer ships full of freshly weaned babies from all over the globe should arrive in port in Marseille and be carted off into the countryside to cut their teeny teeth on white asparagus, cracked green olives, pistou, almond cake, and yes, Charantais melons. The world would be a much happier place if everyone learned how to eat in the South of France.
But back to the Charentais. By the time I first tasted this marvel of melon-osity in 1991 at a market in Provence, it had been grown in the region for over 500 years. The primogenitor seeds of what would one day become the Charentais melon are believed to have been brought to the French village of Cavaillon sometime in the late 15th century. Reportedly the seeds came from Italy. (As a devoted Francophile, I wouldn’t normally give Italy credit for anything. However the related rumors are just too delicious to ignore: Apparently these early ancestors of Charentais melons were so intoxicatingly scrumptious that Pope Paul II died from eating too many. Others claimed he died while having sex with a male servant. Either way, not a terrible way to go. In fact, even better should both be true.)
The true Provencal melon craze, however, began in the mid 19th century when train travel began spreading these delicious melons across the entire continent. Charentais melons became so famous that the Cavaillon market became overrun by melon-seekers from all around France. Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Muskateers, and The Count of Monte Cristo became obsessed with the Charentais. In fact in 1864, when the library of Cavaillon wrote to the famous French author requesting a donation of a few books, Dumas wrote in his reply to the mayor:
“I agree on one condition: if the town and the Cavaillon authorities think highly of my books, I also love their melons and I would like, in exchange for my 300 or 400 volumes, that a bylaw be passed awarding me a life annuity of 12 Cavaillon melons a year.”
The mayor agreed. Unfortunately, Dumas only lived for six more years, enjoying only 72 more melons. Moral: always get your melons up front.
Nowadays, Cavaillon throws the obligatory annual festival celebrating the village’s most famous crop each July. An eight-ton bronze Charentais melon sculpture greets visitors at the outskirts of the village. There’s even an “Order of the Melon,” complete with strange rituals, black robes, and white horses.
It took me seven years to grow my first Charentais melon here in cold Sharon Springs, NY. And still the killing frost comes most years well before I get to savor the first one. But during those lucky seasons when I do smell that first distinctive honeyed breeze in the garden, I find myself completely agreeing with the 17th century poet, Antoine Girard de Saint-Amant, who described the Charentais thusly:
Neither kisses from a mistress,
nor her caresses,
nor expensive apricots,
nor strawberries with cream,
nor manna from heaven,
nor pure honey,
nor sacred pears,
nor sweet figs,
nor delicate plum juice,
not even muscat grapes
are worth the price of this divine melon…
…I will forget my lover’s favors
Before I forget you –
Oh flower of all fruits,
Oh ravishing melon!
(P.S. Don’t tell Brent.)