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.
Always wash a melon really well before cutting into it. Once you cut into it, you could drag whatever germs are on the surface into the watermelon, and there have been a few reported cases of salmonella because of exactly this.
Watermelon is lovely really cold, but other types are melon are for the most part best served just slightly chilled.
1 pound (450g) of melon, skin and seeds = 1 cup of melon flesh, cubed
Melons can be stored (uncut) at room temperature for up to 3 days until ripe (they won’t really ripen in taste any further, though — just get softer). Once ripe, wrap in plastic wrap to help keep moisture in, and transfer to fridge for up to 5 days. Or once cut into, cover remainder with a plastic wrap and store in fridge for up to 3 days.
The origin of Melons such as Musk, Cantaloupe, Honeydew, etc, isn’t exactly known, though they probably originated somewhere in Africa or India. In the Old Testament, the Hebrews long for Melons (Numbers 11:5).
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
“Everything has its apogee of excellence, some … are edible only when they obtain the perfection of their existence, such as Melons and fruits.” — Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in The Physiology of Taste. Dec 1825. Project Gutenberg Edition, Apr 2004.
In French, a netted melon is called a “melon brodé”.