Melon: a succulent concentration of sun
The melon belongs to the cucurbit family, like cucumbers and squash! The European cantaloupe (C. melo var. cantalupensis), has a gray-green smooth or lightly ribbed skin and a medium-hard sweet bright orange-colored fruit. The North American cantaloupe (the C. melo var. reticulatus), also known as muskmelon, has a thicker, more reticulated skin and its light orange flesh is firmer and generally less sweet than its European cousin. The earlier variety of this melon has been known since Ancient times in Asia and Africa. It was smaller and less fleshy than its modern offspring. The Romans called it melopepo, meaning the fruit was “cooked” by the sun and they cultivated two versions, one more red that resembled the watermelon and another that was greener and less sweet. The family of cantaloupes we consume today is thought to have originally come from Armenia and the Romans cultivated it in Cantalupo, near Rome, whence its name. In France, it was cultivated from the 16th Century on, where techniques to concentrate its sweetness were developed, including growing the fruit under glass bell jars, an idea developed by the botanist Olivier de Serre (whose name means hothouse or greenhouse) and a century later Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie, in charge of vegetable and fruit growing at Versailles under Louis XIV, added warm horse and cow dung in glassed hothouses to bring the melon to its zenith. Melons were eaten in the Middle Ages as a fried accompaniment with meat and fresh as a starter in France and Italy with prosciutto, as they are today. They are mainly used elsewhere as a dessert ingredient, both fresh, in sorbets, jams, sweets and pastries.