Ripe and ready

There's nothing so refreshing as melon - and now they're at their irresistible best, says Mark Hix
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Melon boats or balls aren't exactly the coolest starters on the planet these days, despite the reappearance of some "retro foods" on our tables. But when I first started working in hotels in London, I had to van dyke about 50 melons before dinner every night.

Melon boats or balls aren't exactly the coolest starters on the planet these days, despite the reappearance of some "retro foods" on our tables. But when I first started working in hotels in London, I had to van dyke about 50 melons before dinner every night.

Van dyking is the fancy way you cut a melon in half with a small knife to give it that 1970s zig-zag effect. Orange slices and cherries were just lined up on trays ready to stick in the top. Occasionally we'd push the (melon) boat out and fill the fruit with prawns bound in cocktail sauce. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Not that there's anything wrong with a melon starter. Perfectly ripe with really fine prosciutto, it can't be bettered. But underripe with pre-packed plastic ham - forget it. You can sniff out a good melon a mile off, especially those delicious deep orange Charentais melons. That powerful fragrance seems to filter through the skin when the melon is ripe enough to eat. A friendly greengrocer should be able to tell you if their melons are ripe or not, but don't expect a supermarket assistant to know. And if you're shopping in a Mediterranean market the smell of juicily ripe melons will knock you out before you've touched them.

Melons were first cultivated on a large scale in the 16th century on the estate of the pope at Cantalupo outside Rome. Cantaloupe melon (as we now call it), with its craggy, pale, yellowy-green rind, is now one of the most common in Europe. Ogen and galia are summer fruit. Of the many other varieties you're most likely to come across are the orange-fleshed French Charentais and rock melons which generally come from Italy. Otherwise, there's plenty of honeydew around, but it can be dull compared to the more exotic ones. Watermelons are also among the most widely available melons. Seedless fruit is available, but I find watermelons are juicier and sweeter.

On a trip to Tokyo a couple years ago, I heard rumours of the famous square melons that cost fifty quid each. It sounded so outrageous I thought my leg was being pulled. So I went out searching for these mythical melons and ended up in a department-store food hall, and there they were sitting in a neat box. Farmers on the island of Shikoku grow the fruit in square glass cases, then put them into square boxes with a bit of straw and charge a small fortune for them. Which people pay because the melons fit comfortably in the fridge. Melon balls take on a new shape.

Iced melon soup

Serves 4-6

This is a great served icy cold on a hot day or taken in a Thermos to a picnic. Kids will take to this soupy drink so don't leave it unattended. If you want to make a version for them, use grenadine or just the melon. I've tried all sorts of melons for this - as long as they are ripe and sweet it doesn't really matter which you use.

1 ripe Charentais or rock melon, peeled and seeded
1 ripe ogen or honeydew melon, peeled and seeded
2-3tbsp Campari

Cut about 1/5 of the melon into small 1/2cm dice. Blend the rest of the melon until smooth with the Campari and strain through a sieve. Mix the liquid melon with the diced melon and refrigerate for at least 2-3 hours or until ice cold, or place in the freezer for an hour or so and serve slightly slushy.

Watermelon and feta salad

Serves 4

This is an unlikely sounding salad, but it's surprisingly refreshing. Sometimes it's dressed with olive oil and onions, the feta can be fried in olive oil first - there are many variations, but it's perfect for summer however it's done.

I prefer to keep it simple with barrel-aged feta just scattered on to the melon with some torn mint leaves. If you want to make a dressing, mix the juice of a lemon with 5-6 tablespoons of olive oil and a few finely chopped spring onions.

Watermelons vary enormously in size, so you'll have to judge how much to use depending on the numbers you're serving.

1 small or half a large watermelon
120-150g barrel-aged or good quality feta cheese
A small handful of mint leaves, washed in cold water and drained

Peel the watermelon with a sharp, serrated knife, cutting away any white flesh (see preserved watermelon recipe, below, for a good way to make use of the white flesh).

Cut the red flesh into rough 2cm chunks and place in a serving bowl. Tear the mint leaves and mix with the melon. Cut the feta into slightly smaller chunks, scatter over the melon and serve.

Preserved watermelon

I first came across this in the Ken Forrester vineyard restaurant, 96 Winery Road, in Stellenbosch outside Cape Town. It was served with cheese and it was a completely new experience to me. Waatlemoen konfyt, as it's known over there, is as traditional to South Africans as Branston pickle is to us.

Over here it isn't easy to get hold of under-ripe watermelon with a good amount of white flesh between the red part and the rind. I went through three and then found an under-ripe honeydew. A market stall that cuts melons in half is probably your best bet, otherwise do as I did and find an under-ripe honeydew, which isn't difficult as most of those sold in supermarkets are rock-hard. The second problem is the magic ingredient, slaked lime, which I was given a jar of in South Africa, but unable to find here. It's calcium hydroxide and the nearest thing here is bicarbonate of soda.

1 under-ripe honeydew or watermelon
4tsp bicarbonate of soda mixed with about 3 litres of water or enough to cover the melon
1kg granulated or preserving sugar per 1kg melon peel
2litres water per 1kg sugar
Juice of 1 lemon per 1kg under-ripe melon flesh
40g root ginger, peeled and sliced

Peel the melon with a sharp, serrated knife or good peeler and discard the green peel. Cut the melon through into roughly 3cm slices and cut out any red flesh (or soft flesh if using honeydew) to eat another time. Cut the remaining hard white flesh into rough chunks, weigh them (see above) and prick the pieces with a fork then soak them in the bicarbonate of soda solution for 24 hours.

Rinse the white flesh well and soak in fresh water for 2 hours. Bring a large pan half full of water to the boil. Drain the pieces of melon and plunge them into the water and simmer until they are tender but not soft. This can take from 30 to 45 minutes or so and the water may need topping up, test them with a skewer or point of a knife.

Add the correct amount of sugar to the water with the lemon juice and ginger.

Bring the liquid back to the boil, stirring to ensure all the sugar has dissolved, and boil the liquid, stirring every so often, until the pieces of melon are translucent and the syrup is thick: this usually takes 15-20 minutes, again you may need to add a little water if it's not covering the melon or if the liquid is starting to colour.

Pack the melon into sterilised preserving jars, cover with the liquid and seal immediately. Allow to cool and stiffen, then eat with cheese.

Melons with ham

One of those famous marriages of sweet and savoury. As simple as it may be though, it relies heavily on the two ingredients being of the highest quality and in perfect condition. You can theme a melon and ham mixture by matching a French ham such as Bayonne or Rosette de Lyon with, say, an orange-fleshed Charentais. Wherever you are in Europe buy the best local ham to go with melon. In the West Country, you could try one of Denhay Farms' award-winning, air-dried hams from my home town, Bridport ( www.denhay.co.uk). If you're in London go to Brindisa in Borough Market on Fridays and Saturdays or their shop in Exmouth Market, EC1, and buy some of the finest joselito or a pata negra.

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