There was a time (and it’s within living memory) when every vegetable and fruit was seasonal. There came a moment during the autumn when there were no tomatoes until the start of summer of the following year.
That was one of the reasons why Majorca’s remallet tomatoes are so important. They’re the ones you see hanging up in strings and the good thing about them is that if stored correctly they can last until the following summer. That meant housewives had tomatoes for cooking (and making pamboli) throughout the winter.
Something similar happened with melons. They are a summer fruit and didn’t have a long season. But there’s one variety that some Majorcan housewives hang up in string bags and they keep well until Christmas and a bit later.
In those days we didn’t see any melons or watermelons until well into July and they weren’t at their best until the beginning of September.
I haven’t actually been watching the calendar and counting, but nowadays it seems to me that melons are on sale all year round. I imagine they’re grown in plastic tunnels somewhere in the south of Spain or in Israel.
I once tried these very early melons but I found the texture and taste more like turnips than melons and I never tried them again.
Last week I tried a Marina variety (the smallish yellow ones) and it was passable in texture and taste. But the best of the melon seasons is yet to come and I’ll wait another month before it becomes one of my daily fruit choices.
These early melon come mainly from Valencia, Almeria and Seville but the best of the Majorcan harvest won’t be ready until towards the end of next month.
Majorcan melons and watermelons are especially good and the finest are from Villafranca where a melon festival (Festa del Meló) is held on the second Saturday of September.
The festival features an open-air dance called a verbena that starts at around 10pm. The highlight of the celebration is a contest to find the season’s biggest watermelon.
When the weigh-in is over and the heaviest fruit is declared the winner, some two tons of melon and watermelon are sliced up and distributed free to everyone taking part.
A melon is like a bottle of wine in that you won’t know what it tastes like until you open it. Sometimes an element of luck is involved, but there are ways on telling if a melon is likely to be a good one.
When choosing one at the supermarket, first test its weight. If it feels heavy for its size it is full of liquid, so it will at least be juicy.
If you can’t make up your mind about two melons of roughly the same size, have them weighed and take the heavier one. A melon is ripe if it feels tender at the blossom end, opposite the stalk.
And if the stalk comes away with a gentle pull, that is another sign of ripeness. But you can only do that test after you’ve bought the melon and are ready to open it.
Another sign that a melon is ready for eating can be detected in the crown that forms round the stalk end. When the crown emits a fruity perfume, the melon is ready for eating.
Buying a watermelon is less of a problem because they are picked when fully ripe. Get those with a good round shape and of a uniform green colour, except for the slightly yellow part where they were lying on the ground.
Slices of melon or watermelon straight from the fridge are a delightful way of finishing off a summer luncheon or dinner, thus giving domestic cooks a break because there is no need to prepare a dessert.
These two fruits are just as delicious at the start of a meal as at the end, something we are inclined to forget except for that old favourite, melon and cured ham, although this combination is so ubiquitous it has become something of a cliché.
But melons here are such a delight and Iberian cured ham is so unique that it’s a pity not to combine them at some point during the summer months.
However, you can give this dish a new twist by presenting it in a different way. Place very thin slices of a goodish Iberian cured ham (NOT the cheapest one at the supermarket) round a big flat serving dish, leaving a space in the centre for smallish cubes of melon drizzled with lemon juice, a little sugar to taste and a mere dusting of ground ginger.
Sliced melon without the rind also makes a refreshing start to a summer meal. The melon slices should be fridge cold and each diner should season them to taste with salt, pepper and a pinch of ground ginger or cinnamon.
If you are serving your usual chicken curry, which is a good choice for a summer’s day, have a side dish of ice-cold cubes of melon dressed with lemon or lime juice, a mere dusting of sugar and a single spice. It can be ginger, clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, cumin or a good smoky paprika. Do not be tempted to use curry powder or a haphazard mix of spices. This side dish also pairs nicely with barbecued meats.
Melon with port is another of those too familiar dishes that can be given a new twist. We can make a small but effective change by using a good sweet sherry instead of port, or one of the sweet wines now being produced by some of the top Spanish wineries.
Get one of the smallish Galia melons and slice off the top, which will be used as a lid. Scoop out the seeds and fibre and fill the cavity with sweet sherry or sweet wine. Replace the reserved lid, wrap in cling-film and keep in the fridge overnight.
When ready to serve, pour the sherry or wine into a jug, slice the melon into wedges, arrange on a serving platter or individual plates, and drizzle with the sweet wine.
This dish calls for a high quality sweet sherry or wine, so get the most expensive one you can afford. A fine white sweet wine is Veritas Dolç from the José L.Ferrer winery in Binissalem.
It has a lovely rich taste with enough acidity to make it non-cloying. I’ll be writing more fully on this wine in two or three weeks’ time.
You can make another dessert with the small Galia melon, using one half per person. Cut the melon in two crossways, scoop out the seeds and fibre and fill the cavities with sliced strawberries, raspberries or any other fruit of your choice. Sprinkle the filling with a little sugar and finish off with a dusting of ground ginger.
Use the Galia melon as a simple starter by cutting it in half crossways, scooping out the seeds and fibre and filling the cavities with halves of seedless grapes dressed with a little virgen extra olive oil and a little lemon or lime juice.
Sprinkle with a tiny amount of ground ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg or any other spice that takes your fancy. But one only, don’t use a mixture.
These dishes should always be served very cold, so refrigerate them at least three hours before you need them and take them from the fridge to the table.
During the summer and early autumn, melons can help us to lose a considerable amount of weight. Many people (usually young women) go on nonsensical diets in the spring in an attempt to get the bikini look for going to the beach.
But a much better idea is to eat normally, but in moderation, during the hot weather and to use melon and watermelon as a low-cal nibbles when we feel like eating something. We should be eating less during the summer months and that, combined with melon snacks instead of biscuits and other high calorie food, should see the pounds disappearing at a steady rate.
No other fruits have such a high water content (93 per cent) yet melon and watermelon are most filling while containing only 30 calories per 100 grs. So you could eat half a kilo of either for just 150 calories.
But better still is to have a small amount when you feel peckish, so much better than snacking on scones, doughnuts, biscuits and cheese or other nice nibbles such as Kit-Kat or a Mars bar.
The melons’ low energy count also means that some of the small ones contain as few as 120 calories, so a half makes a satisfying starter or dessert for just 60 calories.
Eat melon or watermelon every day during the summer as part of a well-balanced diet and you cannot fail to lose weight. The small Galia and Marina melons are ideal starters or desserts, allowing one half per person.
Melons and watermelons are beneficial in other ways. They are a good source of vitamin A and vitamin C and both fruits are high in potassium and magnesium and low in sodium. Their tiny amount of fat is in the rind. They are high in fibre and have diuretic and laxative properties, so they are ideal for those who suffer from constipation.
Melons and watermelons were favourite fruits of the ancient Greeks and Romans and watermelon was one of the foods the mixed crown and the Israelites longed for while in the wilderness after leaving Egypt (Numbers 11:4&5).
Melons either disappeared or went out of fashion after the fall of the Roman Empire before reappearing in Italy at the start of the 14th century.
The first Italian melons did not reach France until 1465 and the first known treatise on melons did not appear until 1583 when Jacques Pons published one in France.
In Spanish literature there are references to melons before 1465, meaning that the melon had reached Spain before its arrival in France. It was almost certainly brought here by the Arabs.
In his Roman Cookery Book, a compilation of recipes of the Roman aristocracy, Caius Apicius lists melons under vegetables and gives a salad dressing made up of pepper, pennyroyal (a kind of mint), honey, vinegar and liquamen, the condiment made from putrefied fish entrails. A mixture of lemon juice, pepper and ground ginger is a better idea.