Sugar in the dirt

It’s summer, and the ground is sweet with melons

Smiles of rind.

Smiles of rind.

Photo By dyniss rainer

Summer’s sweetness tends to come from above, to dangle from the branches of peach trees, fig trees and grapevines. But some of the sweetest summer fruits of all dwell in the dirt, as meek and humble as winter squash but as dazzling and juicy as the best stone fruits: muskmelons (which include cantaloupes and honeydews) and watermelons.

Two separate species in the Cucurbitaceae—or gourd—family, these heavy, sugary orbs have long presented a challenge to Americans trying to hunt up good ones, which is usually a matter of solid hit or total miss. You know how it goes: One watermelon knocks you over with its juice and sweetness, while another is a flabby, rubbery, tasteless dud.

Speaking from personal experience, I know how good melons and watermelons should be. Last summer, I traveled for more than two months in Turkey and the Republic of Georgia, nations where myriad varieties of cantaloupes and muskmelons are cherished as among the highest delights of summer. They are sold by vendors who stack them in vast yellow and green heaps in town squares, along highways, and in marketplaces.

Downwind, the fruits can be smelled from half a block away at times, and the colorful variety I found was marvelous; every melon I cut open seemed to offer a surprise, whether with its unexpected flesh color or its variance in texture. Nearly all were extravagantly sweet, and I ate almost every one with ceremonial respect and reverence. Only two or three out of the 100 or so I ate were disappointing. The watermelons, too, were exceptional, though my carrying capacity as a traveler prevented me from thoroughly exploring the opportunities.

In Northern California, buying Cucurbitaceae fruits is more of a gamble. Though the climate is warm enough to produce them in perfect form, most melons and watermelons are harvested too early and entered into the joyless, semisweet realms of the national supermarket industry. But at Bordin-Huitt Ranch in Durham, ripeness is par for the course in Marie and Terry Bordin’s seven-acre melon plot. The Bordins grow about 10 varieties of watermelons and muskmelons, among many other ground crops. This cool and blustery year, Marie says, the season is nearly a full month behind. Finally, though, the sun is shining and the first watermelons—usually a Fourth of July favorite—are swelling to size and ripeness.

Ripeness in a watermelon, says Marie, can be determined by knocking on the fruit and listening; a hollow-sounding ring that resonates within the sugary density of the fruit is an indicator of excellence, while a dead thud indicates a dud—or, if it’s still on the vine, that it may need another week of sun. On striped watermelon varieties, too, a sharp—rather than blurry—delineation between the green and white lines means the fruit has spent sufficient time ripening.

“You can also look for the watermelons with a ‘sugar spot,’ Marie advises. “It looks like a bee sting that’s oozing juice. Those ones are the sweetest.”

For cantaloupes and muskmelons, meanwhile, finding the best is all about aroma, Marie says; if it doesn’t smell like perfume, keep searching.

The Bordins work seven farmers’ markets in the region, including all those in Chico, and sell their produce within a day of harvest. Among the Bordins’ watermelons are varieties like the Crimson Sweet, a round fruit, between eight and 10 pounds, with intensely red flesh. The Tiger Baby is an oval-shaped fruit, just a notch smaller than the Crimson Sweet, with pinkish flesh. Those are the Bordins’ small watermelons. Their big ones include a seedless triploid hybrid that can weigh more than 20 pounds.

In the muskmelon category, they sell cantaloupes, Crenshaws, and Canaries. In other markets you may find still more varieties. Good ones include the Charentais, the Passport Galia, the Diplomat Galia, the Piel de Sapo, and the Rayyan, a five-pound, super-juicy white-fleshed melon that is among the best cultivars that grow. Always inspect for that aroma, and hold off for the best, for the prize is worth the pursuit.