A project of Straus Communications, this column originally appeared in the Oakland Tribune on August 7, 2002.

Cooking Fresh
Melon guru says it's all about the heat and the nose
The nose knows
By Laurel Miller - CONTRIBUTOR

THEORIES subject to great debate: the formation of the universe; the existence of alien life forms; how to choose a good melon.

After years in the food business, I've heard countless theories claiming to hold the secret to picking an exemplary melon. However, no one could offer any scientifically sound explanations to back them up -- until Dave Fredericks came along.

Fredericks, farmer and owner of Genuine Exotic Melons, is a melon guru. He grows a variety of melons and other crops on his organic farm in Winters, near the fertile Capay Valley where the hot days help to grow sweet, juicy melons.

"It takes a lot of heat to get a melon," claims Fredericks, which explains why California's commercial melon growing region is in the arid, parched soil outside of El Centro, near the Arizona and Mexican borders. Capay Valley's rich soil and cooler nights, however, provide a niche for small farmers who want to grow specialty melon crops that can tolerate a more varied climate.

Frederick's grows everything from icebox-size, yellow-fleshed New Orchid and Yellow Doll watermelons to the so-called "Queen of Melons" -- Charentais, also known as the French cantaloupe.

Fredericks' melon season begins in mid-July with muskmelons, and continues through mid-October with watermelons. He specializes in heirloom, or open-pollinated varieties, which means he can save the seeds from his melons for replanting. The nose knows

Melons are divided into two classes based on their seed structure: muskmelons and watermelons. Muskmelons, which derive their name from the rich, musky-sweet scent they emanate when ripe, have seeds in the center of the fruit, such as cantaloupe. Their flesh may range from orange to white to green.

Orange-fleshed muskmelons, says Fredericks, have the highest sugar content of any melon -- up to 18 percent on a Charentais -- and are thus the most aromatic.

"Smell is an indicator of greatness," he says. "With orange-fleshed melons, the better they smell, the fresher they are. They have an aroma that's just fantastic -- you can smell it anywhere in a room."

So divine is the scent of a fresh, ripe, orange muskmelon, the women of ancient Persia would carry them in their hands as perfume.

"If you pick a melon before it's mature, there's no way it will be great," explains Fredericks. "Melons don't ripen after harvest."

Green and white-fleshed muskmelons, such as honeydew and Sharlyn, have a lower sugar content and are thus less aromatic. So, to pick out one of these, "look at the blossom end," says Fredericks. "It shouldn't be soft, but have a bit of give, like an underinflated soccer ball. And if the remnants of the blossom are dried and shriveled and brown, you know it's old. The blossom end is also the best place to smell, since it's the sweetest part."

Of all the muskmelons, Fredericks says he loves the oval-shaped, white-fleshed Sharlyn best of all. "I call it the Haagen-Dazs of melons. The Charentais is the most aromatically intense and high in sugar, but the Sharlyn is juicy, refreshing, with a sweet, floral taste, like vanilla ice cream with a splash of rosewater." Who could resist? Give it a whack

Watermelons are classified by the seeds embedded in their crunchy flesh, which in turn is covered by a protective rind. The flesh color may be red, yellow, orange or white. Watermelons can range in size from a manageable 5- to 10-pound "icebox" size, to 18- to 25-pound "standard," to 45 pounds or more.

To choose a premium quality watermelon, Fredericks says to slap the side of the fruit with an open hand.

"It should reverberate, like if you were thumping a jug of water," he says. "That's the sound of the seeds rattling against the flesh. An unripe melon will still have seeds that are tightly attached to the flesh, but as it ripens, the flesh starts to loosen up a bit. If it sounds dead, put it back."

Another sign of maturity is the color of the bottom of the melon, where it has rested on the ground as it matures.

"The bottom should reflect the color of the melon's flesh and rind pattern, because it doesn't receive any chlorophyll," Fredericks says. "So a yellow-fleshed melon would have an ivory or creamy bottom, while a red variety may have an orangey-red tint underneath."

Juice dripping from the stem end is also a sign of both freshness and sweetness. Melons don't get any sweeter after harvest, so, like corn, they're best eaten right away. Mealiness is a sure sign of age.

If you can't eat an entire melon at one go, place plastic wrap on the exposed flesh and refrigerate. Keep it simple

As for eating melons, Fredericks and I both agree that simplicity is best. Try drizzling melons with local honey, a splash of a dessert wine such as muscat or a sparkling wine such as prosecco. Melons are also wonderful in a sorbet or chilled melon soup.

Fredericks recommends pairing a Charentais melon with prosciutto. "Its intense, sweet, muskiness can handle that extra hit of salt."

Chunks of red watermelon paired with paper-thin wisps of red onion and cubes of salty feta is another inspired combination. Some melons even pair well with blue cheeses such as cambazola, or try making a melon parfait with mascarpone, honey and granola.

Dave Fredericks' Genuine Exotic Melons are available at the Ferry Plaza farmers' market in San Francisco and Monterey Market in Berkeley. Melons are also available from the following farms: Riverdog Farm at the Berkeley and St. Helena farmers' markets; Full Belly Farm at the Berkeley and Palo Alto farmers' markets; and Terra Firma Farm at the Marin and Berkeley farmers' markets.

By Annie Somerville of Greens restaurant in San Francisco, published in "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area" (Eating Fresh Guides, $17.95).

For citrus vinaigrette:

1/4 teaspoon finely minced orange zest

2 tablespoons fresh orange juice

1/2 tablespoon Champagne vinegar

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons olive oil

For salad:

2 handfuls watercress, arugula or red mustard greens

1 small melon (cantaloupe, Sharlyn or Ambrosia)

8 to 10 ripe fresh figs (such as kadota, black mission or calimyrna) any combination

2 ounces creamy, mild goat cheese, such as Redwood Hill chevre

To make the vinaigrette, combine all the vinaigrette ingredients except for the oil in a small bowl. Slowly drizzle in the oil, whisking constantly. Set aside. Sort through the watercress; trim the stems and discard any bruised leaves. Wash the greens, dry in a spinner, wrap in a damp towel, and refrigerate.

Cut the melon in half and scoop out the seeds. Thinly slice and peel, keeping the contour of the melon. Rinse the figs under cool water and pat dry. Cut in halves or quarters with stem end intact.

Spread the watercress on a serving platter and arrange the melon and figs freely on top. Drizzle the vinaigrette over the fruit; crumble the goat cheese over all. Serves 4.

Per Serving: 282 Calories; 16g Fat; 7g Protein; 32g Carbohydrate; 5g Dietary Fiber; 15mg Cholesterol; 203mg Sodium.

E-mail Laurel Miller at kaukaukids@hotmail.com.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Derby Street and MLK Jr. Way, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays at Center Street and MLK Jr. Way.
Call (510) 548-3333 or visit www.ecologycenter.org

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Last modified: March 26, 2002