Sunday, August 03, 2008

Farm Bulletin: With Melons, the Nose Knows

The melons are just beginning to ripen at Ayers Creek Farm, and Anthony gives us the lowdown on the wonderfully perfumed and irresistible Charentais melons that he and Carol will have at the McMinnville Farmers' Market this Thursday and the Hillsdale market on Sunday.

The Charentais, or Cavaillon melon, is a variety of rock melon, or cantaloupe. The rock melons have small fruits with distinct lobes, typically eleven or twelve, and are strongly scented. They originated in North Africa. The name "cantaloupe" is derived from "Cantalupo," or "singing wolf," location of the Papal summer residence north of Rome. The big, heavily netted melons often marketed as "cantaloupe" are actually net or musk melons, and belong to the reticulatus group of the melons.

The valley around the city of Cavaillon has a melon growing tradition going back several centuries, though the "Charentais" with which the region is now strongly associated, was introduced in the 1920s. Early in its agricultural development, the Town of Gaston was known for its fine melons, but the deep muck soils of Lake Wapato also proved good for onions, an infinitely less fussy crop. The onions held on until recently, but now there is not a single onion field in the valley. We have tried growing many different melons, but none can equal the Charentais and the Galia in this climate, others fall short. Galias come next week.

What makes the Charentais so distinctive is the variability in fragrance. Some are floral, others have a spicy or citrus note, yet others have a fragrance reminiscent of caramel or butterscotch. When selecting the melon, let your nose guide you. They should all be ripe, but the best one for you is the one that pleases the nose. Rock melons must be cut from the vine before the stem slips off the fruit. The red nectar where the stem was cut is a good indicator of ripeness. For us, we look at the leaf closest to the melon, and if it has stated to shrivel, the melon is ripe.

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