Melons are related to squash and cucumbers. All three are actually fruit, though Melons are the only ones that we think of as such.
Anyone who's ever tried to classify and sort out Melons has had his/her work cut out. Melons are very "promiscuous" and will breed easily with each other (many in fact believe that Melons will even breed with cucumber, which is not true.)
There are actually two different groups of Melons, distinguished in writing by their Latin names: Cucumis, or the muskmelon group, and Citrullus, the watermelon group. Another way of looking at melons, though, is based on their skin: netted and non-netted. The netted ones have what looks like netting on top their skin. Sometimes non-netted are called "smooth rind", but this can be a confusing term because smooth rind Melons can have bumps and ridges on them. Consequently, some people make three groups of Melons: Netted, non-netted smooth and non-netted rough.
Netted Melons are a good source of vitamins A and C and sucrose and will keep on growing until they can detach cleanly from their stem. Non-netted Melons contain lower amounts of vitamins A and C, grow quickly at first, then stop growing until they ripen and produce less ethylene gas than netted types do.
Melons have no real starch reserves, so they cannot ripen after picking -- they should be left on the vine until needed. Melons are ready to be picked when they are ready to detach naturally from their stems. To see if a melon was picked too early, look at the stem end to see if there's an indentation there where the stem came away. This is called a "full slip." If there's no indentation, then it was cut off, which means it was picked before the flavour had fully developed. When they are ripe, you get a good clean break between the melon and the stem, rather than a break in the stem.
Watermelon is lovely really cold, but other types are melon are for the most part best served just slightly chilled.
Melons were grown and used by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, though their Melons were only about as big as our oranges today. The Etruscans grew very small Melons, about the size of eggs. By the third century, Melons were an important export business from Armenia to Rome. Some Roman books also advised on how to grow them yourself. Apicius uses Melons in his recipes (uncooked). The Romans and Greeks, however, didn't wax as lyrical about Melons as they did about other fruit, perhaps because the Melon breeds they had might not have been as sweet as the ones we had today.
Melons probably disappeared from Europe when Rome fell (though perhaps not entirely -- see the history section of the Cantaloupe entry).
They were re-introduced to Europe by the Arabs during the time they occupied Spain. Melons don't appear to have re-appeared in any number in Italy until about the 1300s, at about the same size as the Romans had had. It was patient Italian gardeners who coaxed them to greater sweetness, size and beauty, as they would do a few centuries later with tomatoes.
The Spanish brought Melons to America, but they didn't really take off. They were brought over again with the slave trade, but didn't really start to gain wide popularity in North America until the last half of the 1800s.
Literature & Lore
MelonsBabáco Melons; Banana Melons; Cassabanana Melons; Horned Melons; Korean Melon; Melons; Summer Melons; Winter Melon Squash; Winter Melons
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