All about the melons

Watermelon, cantaloupe, musk melon: It’s all good.

Watermelon, cantaloupe, musk melon: It’s all good.

Summer’s sweetness tends to come from above, to dangle from the braches of peach trees, citrus 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 also as dazzling and juicy as the best peaches or pluots: melons and watermelons.

In this family of fruits, as with almost any fruit produced in America, quality is a matter of solid hit or total miss. You know how it goes: One watermelon will knock you over with its juice and sweetness, while another is a total dud—flabby, rubbery and tasteless. Speaking personally, I know how good melons and watermelons can, and should, be. Last summer and fall, I traveled for more than two months in the Republic of Georgia and Turkey, nations where melons are revered as among the highest delights of summer. They are sold by vendors who stack them in vast heaps in town squares, outside storefronts, along highways and in marketplaces, and eating these fruits—especially the melons—was an almost religious experience every time.

In California, melons and watermelons are more of a gamble. Local farmer Dave Vierra, of Dave’s Pumpkin Patch in West Sacramento, grows eight varieties of cantaloupes, muskmelons and watermelons—now just coming into season—and offered some tips for selecting the best specimens. Among watermelons, tapping the fruit can determine a fruit’s freshness. “You want it to have a hollow ring,” he said. “If it just goes thud, don’t buy it.”

But to determine a watermelon’s ripeness is a different matter; the fruit’s stripes, green in immaturity, should be pale—almost white—Vierra said. He also grows a black watermelon, which should have no visible stripes at all when ripe, just a shiny, black sheen.

For cantaloupes and muskmelons, it’s all about aroma. Though store-bought melons are often bleach-washed to control salmonella and therefore emit little to no smell, at farm stands, if a fresh melon doesn’t smell like perfume, keep searching. The prize, as you know, is well worth the pursuit.