Friday, September 3, 2010

The Marvel of Melon!

It is in these dwindling days of summer (or the very first days of autumn) that we really appreciate the luxury and succulence of the season’s produce. And, for me, the melon, bright and invigorating, is the pinnacle. When melons enter the bazaar, a sweet and distinctive aroma fills your nose, long before your eyes lay upon them. Fresh from the vine, watermelons (кавун) and muskmelons (dynya) are the delight of Ukraine’s late summer markets.

Native to tropical Africa, watermelons have crisp, red (or yellow) flesh while muskmelons, with soft orange or pale green flesh, originate in central Asia. Watermelons and muskmelons are both members of the Cucurbitaceae family, which also includes squashes, pumpkins and cucumbers. Melons, both watermelons and muskmelons, are rather fickle fruits, sensitive to frosts and cold, windy or cloudy conditions. They thrive in warm, sunny weather and humus-rich, well-drained, if slightly acidic, soils. The greater southern Dnieper valley regions of Zaporizhzhya, Mykolayiv and Kherson, as well as portions of the Crimean peninsula afford ideal conditions for these delicate beauties. And, thus, Ukrainians have developed a particular fondness for the fruits and adeptness in their cultivation. Indeed, melons have been cultivated in Ukraine for some 15 centuries. According to a USDA report, fossilized melon seeds found during excavations of sites near Sevastopol dated to the 2nd century BC! In addition, genetic research suggests that Ukraine is also significant hub of genetic melon diversity. It seems Ukrainians (and Russians) carried some of the seeds of these diverse strains with them as they immigrated to North America, notably to Central Canada, home to famous varieties such as the buttery yellow “Cream of Saskatchewan.”

As with most fruits, melons are sweetest and most delicious when ripened on the vine. As for choosing a watermelon at the perfect stage of ripeness, it can be tricky because the outer skin, often green and zebra-striped, remains so regardless of fruit readiness. At my regular market haunts, growers, sellers and fellow patrons are usually glad to provide advice for spotting, slapping, squeezing or sniffing out the ideal specimen.

If selection assistance is not a service provided by your melon merchant, as may occasionally be the case, you may choose to defer to the advice of American writer, Mark Twain, who, I gather, was something of a watermelon aficionado and, according to my treasured 17th edition of Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening (1971), is said to opined: an unripe melon says “pink” or “pank” when rapped with the knuckles, while a ripe one replies “punk.”

Muskmelons, of course, provide an unmistakable perfume, smelling delicious when they are delicious. They also tend to soften after being picked and may give a bit under the thumb. I have been informed that they may also rattle when lightly shaken, as the seeds move about in the hollow center.

In addition to the fleeting joys of fresh melons, there is also the magic of pickled watermelon! Sometimes sweet, sometimes salty and savory, sometimes spicy and sweet, both the flesh and the rinds of the watermelon are pickled and make a wonderful appetizer or relish for warm, mid-winter meals.

The drying of muskmelons, both flesh and rinds, is a preservation technique that apparently originates in the Caucus region and is popular in some Ukrainian communities, particularly in Crimea. While I heard much about this practice third-hand, I do not know anyone that does this! If you have experience drying muskmelons, drop us a line!

For a fabulous pickled watermelon recipe and related articles, visit Saveur.

To learn more about Ukraine and genetic diversity of melons, see the USDA Agricultural Research Service 2009 study.

For information about growing watermelons, muskmelons and cantaloupe, I recommend Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, any edition.

As always, Culinaria Russia: Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, edited by Marion Trutter, published by H. Fullmann, 2006 is a great resource on the food traditions of the Post-Soviet Space.

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