Every summer, piles of gold are sold in the Provençal town of Cavaillon, located between the Durance River and the Luberon hills. The gold in question is not the precious metal measured in karats. Instead, it is the melon: a succulent, intensely fragrant, golden globe recognised as the town treasure. It has provided a steady source of income, attracted an increasing stream of visitors, inspired painters, poets, and master chefs, generated festivals and even caused the odd death or two.
Quite a few towns have statues commemorating a local celebrity, but at the entrance to Cavaillon you are greeted by a 9-tonne melon sculpture! The golden fruit has been part of local history for at least five centuries and has brought the town prosperity and fame for close to 150 years.
In size and marking, the melons of Cavaillon bear a passing resemblance to their distant relative, the cantaloupe, but there the similarities end. The melon variety grown in Provence since the mid-1920’s is the Charentais, originally developed in the Charentes region in west-central France. It can be either lisse (smooth-skinned), or brodé (its skin “embroidered” with a filigree of raised markings). The potent perfume evokes violets, jasmine and almonds when the fruit is not quite ripe, and later develops into a honeyed concentrate of apricot, passion fruit and banana. The heady fragrance pervades every market stall and shop where melons are sold and embalms every table where they are served. The taste lives up to the divine smell: the bright orange flesh is luscious, juicy and honey sweet. Better yet, a 7-ounce serving provides plenty of Vitamin C, but only 100 calories, which makes greed without guilt a delicious possibility.
The first Cavaillon melons of the year, reared in heated greenhouses, appear in April. They tend to be crunchier and less aromatic than those that follow. From May to mid-June, melons grown in unheated greenhouses dominate the market and prepare the palate for the peak of the season, from mid-June to September, when the melons ripen in the fields and cross the taste boundary from mortal fruit to heavenly ambrosia.
Melons have been cultivated in the Cavaillon region since at least 1495, when Charles VIII is reported to have brought some seeds back with him from Italy, where melons were raised in the country gardens of the popes, in Cantelupo, near Rome. Known as Cantaloup melons, chances are that they had already been introduced to Provence a century and a half earlier, when Avignon was the official residence of the popes. The highest representatives of the Catholic Church certainly consumed melons, very much a luxury delicacy at the time, with a relish bordering on religious fervour. Pope Paul II was such a melon glutton that he died of gorging himself on them in 1471 and Clement VIII was apparently struck down by a similar fate at the beginning of the 17th century.
In Cavaillon, the real “gold rush” began in the second half of the 19th century, when the weekly fresh produce market became so busy, that the municipal council proudly noted how it “excites among the neighbouring towns, not jealousy, but astonishment and admiration.” Amongst the admirers of Cavaillon’s delicious melons was the writer and bon-vivant Alexandre Dumas. In 1864, when the new municipal library asked popular French writers to donate some of their works, Dumas responded promptly. As generous as he was prolific, he donated all 194 of his published works to Cavaillon and promised to send a copy of all his future publications as well, on just one condition: a life annuity, of twelve melons a year. The town fathers were delighted to grant Dumas his request, and until his death in 1870, a dozen melons were dispatched to him every summer.
As for the golden globes that are Cavaillon’s glory, they continue to ripen in the fields until September, condensing the sunshine of Provence into a solid little piece of heaven on earth.
Look at it: A melon should have spotless skin veering towards a pale gold, with bluish-green stripes marking its segments
Pick it up: A melon should be heavy, gorged with sugary juice and flesh.
Examine its “tail”: The stem end should be thick and green, indicating that the melon has been picked within the last three days. A circular crack should show around the stem, from which a drop or two of dark-red, crystallised juice sometimes oozes. This is a sure sign of a well-ripened, sweet melon.
Take a deep sniff: The stem end should smell nothing less but divine!
Now change ends: The bigger the blossom end of the melon, the better. Many people claim that melons with big “mamelons” (nipples) are females, but melons are unisex. The large blossom end is the result of dried flower remains rubbing against the melon, which stimulates its defence system and produces a tastier fruit.