The Cool Fruit of Summer

by Roberta

My favourite dessert fruits, in seasonal order, are cherries, apricots, and watermelon. All these I will eat in season only, although I will occasionally cheat when it comes to watermelon, and buy a wedge imported from the US in July, but never in winter.

When I was a kid, summer and watermelons were inseparable (just like tomatoes and summer). In those long-gone days when we lived in Germany, my parents never bought watermelon out of season; winter was mostly a time for citrus fruits, apples, pears, bananas, kiwi and pineapple. I never really got a good fill of watermelon until our summer holidays, and the best tasting ones (in my opinion) were those my grandfather bought as a treat for the family, but particularly the kids.

My mother was born in a village in Slavonia, in the northeastern part of Croatia. Her home village, like so many other Croatian villages, consists of a road neatly lined with houses on each side. Behind each house was, and still is, a kitchen garden, behind each kitchen garden an orchard, and beyond the orchard fields of corn, wheat and other grains. Exploring the gardens and plucking fresh fruits off trees and shrubs was the best way to spend summer in the country. My cousins and I played in the morning with other village kids, then took a break for a copious lunch (with about 3 to 4 courses, starting with soup and ending with Turkish coffee – not for the kids, though – and dessert) prepared by my aunts, before running out again to cease the rest of the day. Each week for about 2 or 3 afternoons, a watermelon vendor would drive his horse-drawn cart slowly along the road shouting out his business. And every summer while we were on holidays, my grandfather would shuffle out of the gate into the driveway, wave to the seller to stop, and expertly pick one of the watermelons nestled in a bed of straw in the back of the cart.

The watermelon was oblong with light and dark jagged green stripes. It was too warm from sitting in the cart, so my grandfather would fill a large basin with cold well water and immerse it for a while to cool off. The melons were never refrigerator cold, and they never lasted very long in a household of 5, plus relatives, plus guests, of whom I am certain I was the biggest watermelon devourer, so there was rarely ever enough left over to keep for more than 2 days anyway. Most often than not, whatever remained was stored over night in the cool larder rather than the fridge.

My grandfather would take a big knife and insert it in the rind. The moment I was waiting for was the sound of a crispy crack with a hollow and deep snappy echo that would be the tell-tale marker of a perfectly ripe melon. The fruit would split lengthways, leaving a fault line showing the reddish pink flesh and releasing the fresh melony fragrance. My grandfather would proceed and carve long wedges. Some folks would use a paring or other knife to pick out the seeds and cut the flesh into smaller, more manageable pieces. Us kids mostly just worked on our large slices bite by bite, getting the sticky juice all over our cheeks and hands. I’d stuff myself so much that my tummy felt like a taught water balloon, and my play was interrupted with too many dashes to the loo for pee breaks. Of course, a great part of the watermelon eating experience were the seeds. To me the seeds were a mix of nuisance and fun, and the overall process of devouring a slice was a wet and sticky one. If at all possible it was sensible for the kids to eat the watermelon outdoors, if not, the oilcloth covering the table made the cleanup of spilled seeds and drips of juice a swift one.

It wasn’t until I moved to Canada that I ate my first seedless fruits: watermelon and grapes. I never questioned the presence of seeds in fruit, but will admit that their absence was convenient. However, the production of seedless watermelon varieties is not so convenient. Because the plants are sterile and so don’t reproduce their own offspring (which makes them the botanical equivalent of a mule), the yield is generally lower and more pollinators are needed to do the work (it’s a genetic thing). All this has, of course, consequences: a higher cost of production resulting in a higher price for the eater, greater demand of and on an increasingly fragile and overworked pollinator population, and an “up yours” to the mechanisms important in maintaining biodiversity. Essentially seedless watermelons are really a product of genetic modification, which is a very controversial and incendiary topic for producers, eaters, government, business, and researchers.

So, getting back to seeds and agricultural biodiversity… Who knows what the future of food holds (much of it will depend on us, the eaters), but our species has been very inventive for a very long time, and we’ve created a vast wealth of both animal and plant species to suit our needs and palate. As such, the resulting amount of biodiversity in food crops alone is staggering, and seeds were freely shared (before the advent of intellectual property rights and agribusiness). (Actually the industrialization of food has resulted in a decrease in global crop biodiversity.)

In September 2008 Saveur published an article on watermelon with a double page photo spread of 18 different types.

My copy of the 6th edition of the Garden Seed Inventory published in 2004 by the Seed Savers Exchange – the US sister organization of Seeds of Diversity Canada – lists 162 cultivars.

For a feast for the eyes and to really wet your curiosity for melons of all sorts (i.e. watermelons, cantaloupes and honeydews), I recommend taking a look at heirloom plant conservationist, gardener and writer Amy Goldman’s Melons for the Passionate Grower.

Melons of all sorts prefer a long growing season (their centre of origin is in tropical Africa after all), or rather, the bigger the melon the longer the season needs to be. There are, of course, cultivars (including smaller types) that have been adapted to shorter seasons through decades of adaptation, trial and error, and careful breeding. However, most of the time you won’t see field-grown watermelon at Toronto farmers’ markets until late August/early September, unless they’ve been grown in hothouses, and this season Jim from Haystrom Farm (so expertly represented by friendly Lou) is promising a couple of heirloom varieties, including Moon & Stars, which I am particularly looking forward to trying.

Here’s to an Indian summer and an extended harvest season!

Notes & Links:
I prefer eating watermelon plain – no salads, salsas, or fancy drinks. However, for the more culinary adventurous here’s a link to some watermelon recipes.

Here’s a link with tips on how to pick a ripe melon for your table. By the way, melons practically pick themselves: once the ripening process is complete, they separate from the vine on their own. How fab is that?

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