Watermelon

Watermelon

31-07-2015R.I.

There are times when many of us are inclined to think the past was so much better than the present — until, perhaps, we give it some careful thought. In that case we may come to agree with Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States and the principal drafter of the Declaration of Independence.

At one stage he said: “The past is a good place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

Every year at about this time I have a great yen for the Palma I knew in the 1960s, when certain streets and squares in the centre of the city were turned into open-air markets under the stars — for the exclusive sale of melons.

There was no fixed date for this makeover — on a stifling hot day in August, veritable hillocks of melons would suddenly spring up on various streets and squares.

Popular sites were the square in front of the Instituto opposite the Vía Roma, Plaza Atarazanas off the Paseo Sagrera, Plaza Mayor in the Calle San Miguel area, and the section of the Avenidas near the sea end where there used to be a market on Saturdays.

At each point several vendors set up their huge piles of melons (and some watermelons) and waited for customers. Their melon-selling vigil was a long one…because these stalls were open 24 hours a day.

It’s something that couldn’t happen today with our strict fixed opening hours and a general public who look for obstacles and inconveniences in everyday projects — and then make vociferous protests when they find them.

If we had these all-night sales points today, they would attract young people who wanted to play music on their mobiles, dance and sing, and create a rowdy situation that would keep nearby residents from getting to sleep.

In the worst scenario it would attract prostitutes, drug addicts and their suppliers — and would also be a source of possible infection from the latest virus to invade the city.

There was activity from midnight to dawn in those days but it was all somewhat dignified, with everyone on their best behaviour. The main pre-dawn customers were groups of male friends in their 40s who went out drinking three of four times a week at bars and discotheques in the Plaza Gomila area.

At that time there were no discos in the resort areas such as Palmanova, Santa Ponsa, Playa de Palma, Puerto de Alcudia and other coastal areas. The island’s only nightlife was centred in Plaza Gomila. Visitors from those outlying areas came into Palma on organised bus trips called Palma by Night.

This night time excursion took in tapas bars, Plaza Gomila bars and sometimes dinner at Sa Premsa. A good Palma by Night ended up at Tito’s nightclub right at the hub of Plaza Gomila with its fantastic views over the Bay of Palma.

That scene attracted those groups of male friends who did a round of the bars in Gomila (including the Paseo Marítimo) and also groups of much younger men (boys, really) who went to the discos in the hope of clicking with young tourists girls, preferably Scandinavian.

For these two groups of males, their night out invariably ended up at one of the outdoor melon markets where the tradition was to buy a melon and have it sliced up by the stallholder so it could be eaten on the spot. There was absolutely nothing unruly about these predawn melon feasts. Everything was nice and orderly. And for the Scandinavian girls it was something unheard of: slices of juicy melon at four in the morning in the company of handsome young Majorcan Romeos. Life in Stockholm, Copenhagen, Oslo or Helsinki was never like this.

For everyone who took part in those predawn juicy and sweet nightcaps, slices of melon never tasted so good. Those were the good old days…and they’ll never come back.

A melon is like a bottle of wine in that you won’t know how it tastes until you open it. Sometimes an element of luck is involved. Even so, there are ways of telling if a melon is likely to be sweet and juicy. When choosing one at the market, first test its weight. If it feels heavy for its size it is full of liquid — and will at least be juicy. If you cannot make up your mind about two melons, have them weighed and take the heavier one.

A melon is ripe if it feels tender at the blossom end, opposite the stalk. If the stalk comes away with a gentle pull, that is another sign of ripeness. But you can only do that test after you have 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 it emits a fruity perfume, the melon is ripe.

Buying watermelons is less of a problem as they are lifted when fully ripe. Select those with a good round shape and a uniform green colour, except for the slightly yellow part where they were lying on the ground. Some watermelons are gigantic and even medium-sized ones are far too big for most families.

But market stalls and supermarkets sell them in halves, quarters and even smaller portions wrapped up in clingfilm. Take those portions with vivid red firm flesh, avoiding any that look dry and woolly.

A slice of melon or watermelon straight from the fridge is a delightful way of finishing off a summer luncheon or dinner, thus giving the domestic cook a day off from making dessert. But melon is just as good at the start of a meal, which we are inclined to forget except for that old favourite — slices of melon draped with cured ham, although this combination is so popular it has become something of a cliché.

But melons in Majorca are so delicious and Iberian cured ham is so unique, that it’s a pity not to combine them during the summer months. You can make a change in the presentation by placing the slices of ham round a big flat serving dish, leaving a space in the centre for smallish cubes of melon drizzled with lemon juice, sprinkled with sugar to taste, plus a mere dusting of ground ginger.

Sliced melon without the rind also makes a refreshing start to a summer meal. The melon wedges should be fridge cold and each diner should season them to taste with salt, pepper and a pinch of ground ginger or cinnamon. It’s also a good idea to use one of the spiced salts from specialist shops. Some of them are made with a nice range of spices such as black pepper, coriander seeds, turmeric, paprika, cumin, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger or cloves.

If you are serving your usual chicken or lamb curry, have a side dish of ice-cold cubes of melon dressed with lemon juice and a single ground spice. It can be any of the above or another you especially like. Do not be tempted to use curry powder or a haphazard mix of spices. This spicy melon treat also pairs nicely with barbecued meats.

Melon with port is another of those favourites that has become somewhat too ubiquitous. However, we can make a small but effective change by using a good sweet sherry or one of the sweet white wines from top Spanish bodegas.

Buy one of the very small Gaia or Marina melons and slice off the top, which will be used as a lid. Scoop out the seeds and the fibre and fill the cavity with sweet sherry or a sweet white wine.

Replace the reserved top, wrap in clingfilm and keep in the fridge overnight. When ready to serve, pour the sherry or wine into a jug, slice the melon into rindless wedges, arrange on plates and drizzle with the sweet wine. This dish calls for a high quality sweet wine, so get the most expensive one you can afford.

Go for a sweet sherry from one of the many bodegas whose names are so well known in Britain. A good sweet white wine is Veritas Dolç from the José L. Ferrer bodega in Binissalem. It has a lovely rich taste with a nice touch of acidity that makes it non-cloying. It costs around €17 for a half litre bottle.

Melon is an especially good fruit for making summer cold soups because it is plentiful and prices are reasonable. Cold soups containing melon are sometimes made with the raw fruit and in other recipes the fruit is cooked in chicken stock. Both methods produce delicious soups and both are worth trying.

For the cooked version you will need: 2 medium sized Gaia or Marina melons, juice of a lemon, litre of fat-free chicken stock, 3 tbsps finely chopped mint, pinch of ground cinnamon, 150mls cream, salt to taste.

Cut one of the melons in half, take out the seeds and fibre and from one half scoop out some small balls of flesh to be kept as a garnish. Sprinkle them with lemon juice and leave them covered in the fridge until needed.

Cut the rest of the melons into slices, take off the rind, cut the flesh into wedges and put them into a blender with the chicken stock. Blitz and put the mixture into a saucepan. Add the chopped mint and a pinch of cinnamon. Simmer the uncovered mixture for 15 minutes.

Put the soup through a sieve and when it is cold stir in the cream. Keep in the fridge until it is very cold. Serve in ice-cold plate or bowls, garnished with the little balls of lemon and a leaf or two of fresh mint.

For the uncooked version you will need: 2 medium sized melons, lemon juice to taste, and a syrup made with 250 mls water and 100 grs sugar. Put the sugar and water into a small saucepan, bring to the boil and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Simmer for four minutes and leave to cool.

Cut the melons into slices, remove seeds and fibre and cut the flesh from the rind. Dice and blitz in the blender to make a smooth purée. Transfer to a big bowl and stir in a tablespoon of lemon juice (or to taste) and add enough syrup to give a nicely balanced sweet and sour taste.

If the purée at this stage is very thick you can add a little ice-cold mineral water. Avoid tap water because it could easily spoil the taste. Serve the soup well chilled and decorated with a couple of mint leaves. The petals of edible summer flours add an exotic touch.

Most of us serve soups in deep plates or bowls but when they have lovely pastel colours the visual impact is increased when they are served in glasses of an appropriate shape that aren’t too deep. Biggish martini glasses are ideal and short chunky ones also work well. If the soup is smooth, sip it from the glass rather than eat it with spoon.

All cold soups, especially those that contain cream, should be served in bowls, plates or glasses kept in the freezer for an hour or so to get them really cold.

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