In the recent heatwave I didn’t only refuse to cook, there wasn’t much I wanted to eat either. Only tomatoes, nectarines, cucumber and melons were on the menu. I’m fond of melons but in 40 degrees they’re a miracle, a thirst quencher, chilled nectar of the gods. In fact, they taste better in the heat than at any other time. When I’ve halved a melon and scooped out the seeds I attack it with a spoon, closing my eyes as the taste fills my mouth. It needs minimal preparation and no accompaniment.
Most fruits are better when they’re not fridge cold – and you should ripen melons on a warm windowsill – but I don’t care if its flavor is slightly muted, I want the juice to be cold. As you eat the flesh the juice gathers in the hollow where the seeds were, so you stop eating the melon momentarily and drink it instead.
You do need to find good ripe melons. For some reason they’ve been luscious this year. The best will be heavy for their size – that indicates juiciness and a high sugar content – and perfumed (sniff the circle at one end, opposite where the stem was). You can press gently on this point as well, it should be slightly soft, but go easy when you’re testing for ripeness, you don’t want bruising.
The French Cavaillon melon, if you can find it, is king – perfumed orange flesh that tastes of honey – and I love charentais, which is small and heavily scented, a feast for one. Cantaloupes are sweet and tender, though not up there with the Cavaillon. Galia (or Ogen) with its pale green flesh is a cross of cantaloupe and honeydew. It’s not as rich as other varieties but it’s better than the rock-hard honeydew melons of my childhood.
There are plenty of miserable melons, subpar because they’re used year round to bulk out sad fruit salads. The flesh of these doesn’t taste much better than turnips. I’ve noticed you can now buy ‘melon free’ tubs of fruit salad in sandwich chains. How badly we treat some foods. Melons are meant to be eaten from May to October (a warm sweet melon in October is a pleasure you want to linger over), not on gray January days.
If you find good melons you don’t need to do much with them. Melon and prosciutto – sweet cool flesh against fatty salty ham – is a combination I never tire of. I often order it when there are many other choices just because when I see it listed, I can’t resist. Feta or a Provençal goat’s cheese work well with melon too, it’s that salty-sweet thing again. It’s also good with sharp fruits. Half a small melon filled with raspberries or red currants might be old-fashioned but it still works, lush honeyedness against mouth-puckering sharpness.
Melon sorbets and granitas are heaven. I often make granita in a heatwave and dip into it when I’m working late at night, going to the freezer both to stand in its coolness and to scrape up a spoonful of coral-coloured crystals. The thing is, you promise yourself you’ll have just one spoonful but eventually find yourself staring into an empty tub, justifying it by claiming it’s so hot you needed the water.
Surprisingly, melon makes a great jam when paired with ginger and lime, especially if you use a mixture of varieties and keep the cubes of flesh intact, and I love the pickled melon below with ham and pork, and it rocks at a barbecue.
It’s strange to think that melons were considered fancy in the 1970s. Slices of honeydew were served as a starter in steak houses, though it was often so tasteless it was served with a dusting of sugar and cinnamon. A pinch of sea salt flakes can be good sprinkled over a lush slice of Cavaillon, but melon with cinnamon and sugar? The very idea…
Cucumber, avocado and double melon salad
The dressing for this is lovely. Make it earlier in the day if you can so it can develop in flavor, and then check it again for lime juice just before you’re going to dress the salad.
It doesn’t matter which two melons you use – a mixture of charentais, cantaloupe or galia, whatever you can find that has a good flavor and sweetness. It needs to be intense in smell and flavor.
This salad should be made just before you want to serve it, or the cucumber gets very ‘tired’ and watery. It will add liquid to the dish the longer it sits. I don’t like salting ribbons of cucumber – they just end up so limp – so you have to reckon on a little liquid coming out of them. For this reason, the dressing really needs to taste intense.