FOOD / Tough exterior yields sweet flesh: Melons may breed like rabbits, but our cookery writer sticks with the old, thoroughbred families of fruit for her summer starter and dessert recipes

In Alexandre Dumas' Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine, the author includes a special entry for the Provencal town of Cavaillon . . . 'not for its position on the river Durance, nor for its proximity to Avignon, nor for its arc de triomphe, but for its melons'.

Dumas recounts that he received a letter from the town councillors of Cavaillon, who were trying to set up a public library with limited funds. They asked him to donate two or three of what he considered his best novels. He replied that 'all my books are good, but I think that the melons of Cavaillon are excellent'. He offered to send them a full set of his novels in exchange for a lifetime annuity of a dozen of their finest green melons; the council readily agreed.

Lucky Dumas. Of course, he knew that the Cavaillon melons were a good variety, and that is the first pointer to picking out a fine fruit. Although I am all for trying new things, I tend to be a stick-in-the-mud when it comes to melons. I usually ignore the cavalcade of new names that turn up every year. Melons, apparently, interbreed like rabbits, and some of their offspring are disappointingly dull.

Broadly speaking, melons fall into three categories: cantaloup, musk-melons (netted or nutmeg melons) and winter melons. I have always thought of cantaloups as orange-fleshed, but I am wrong. The green-fleshed Ogen, for instance, is technically a cantaloup. Generally, they have a hard rind, which may be scaly, and broad ribs. The flesh tends to be soft but smooth and very juicy. The name comes from the Italian town of Cantalupo, south of Rome, where, it is said, they were first grown in Europe. My favourite, the fragrant, orange-fleshed Charentais, belongs to this group.

The skin of musk-melons is usually covered with a barely raised, light-coloured network pattern. The colour of the flesh varies through the melon spectrum, but it is usually smoother and firmer than that of a cantaloup. Though winter melons are now available for much of the year, originally they were the latecomers, ripening towards the end of summer or even in the autumn. With their hard rinds, they are the best 'keepers'. Honeydew melons are typical of this group, with their yellow skins and crisp, sweet flesh.

You can, to a degree, gauge the ripeness of cantaloups and musk- melons by the heaviness of their scent. Otherwise, the main test for all melons is whether the end opposite the stem yields when pressed. Some people like their melon chilled, but I find this dampens the flavour of fragrant melons such as Charentais.

Powdered ginger and maraschino cherries, though not extinct as melon garnishes, are at least rare these days. Prosciutto, I am glad to say, still holds sway as the ideal partner to a good melon. If you serve them together as a first course, do not stint on the ham.

Melon with wine

From The Complete Book of Fruit by Leslie Johns & Violet Stevenson (Angus & Robertson), comes this simple but boozy recipe. They recommend it with a honeydew, but it will jazz up any variety.

Cut a small (but not so small that you cannot slide a spoon into the centre) triangular piece out of the stem end of the fruit to act as a plug. Then stand the melon upright in a suitably sized bowl. Scrape out the seeds, fill the cavity with dessert wine (not your best, but an adequately good one) and replace the plug. Chill for about 6 hours or so.

Shortly before serving, pour the wine into a jug or decanter, let the melon warm up a little at room temperature then slice and serve with the wine.

Melon and smoked chicken salad

This is a lovely, light, fresh-tasting summer salad that is best put together at the last minute. Smoked chicken is particularly pleasing, but a well-flavoured roast free- range chicken will do nicely.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients: 1 orange- or green- fleshed melon

about 12oz (340g) smoked or cooked ordinary chicken, torn into bite-sized pieces

1tbs finely chopped chives

1/2 tbs chopped chervil or parsley

1/2 cucumber, peeled and diced

3tbs toasted pine kernels

For the dressing: 1 1/2 tbs lemon juice

juice of 1/2 orange

salt and pepper

Preparation: Discard the melon seeds and rind, and cut flesh into 1in (2.5cm) cubes. Mix with all the other ingredients. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Melon sorbet

The purest of summer desserts, it can be made with any type of melon. The flavour is best within a few days of the making. If you have the time, you might even freeze three batches, one with orange-fleshed melon, one with green and one with watermelon. They will look very pretty, piled up in multicoloured scoops in a halved watermelon shell.

Serves 6-8

Ingredients: 1 melon, or wedge of melon, weighing about 2lb (1 kg)

6oz (170g) sugar

2-3tbs orange-flower water

lemon juice

Preparation: Remove seeds and liquidise the flesh of the melon. Put the sugar into a pan with 1/2 pint (290ml) water and stir over a medium heat until the sugar has dissolved completely. Draw off the heat. Add syrup and orange-flower water gradually to the pureed melon, tasting as you go, until it is sweet enough (remember that the cold will dampen the sweetness a little). Now add a generous squeeze or two of lemon to emphasise the flavours.

Freeze in a sorbetiere if you have one. Otherwise, pour into a shallow container and place in the freezer, which has already been turned to its coldest setting. Leave until the sides are setting solid. Break them up and push into the centre. Return to the fridge. Repeat. When the sorbet has just set solid, take it out and scoop into a processor. Whiz to a mush and return once again to the freezer before serving.

Swimming melon

The cuisine of Laos is not rich in puddings but this one, from the Traditional Recipes of Laos by Phia Sing (Prospect Books), is worth a dozen lesser desserts. It is refreshing on a hot day and requires little more work than a fruit salad. I do not know what kind of melons they use in Laos, but I tried it with a Charentais, which was delicious. Do not chill the first extraction coconut cream or it will set solid.

Serves 6

Ingredients: grated meat of 1 coconut or 8oz desiccated coconut

1 medium-large ripe melon

7oz (200g) castor sugar

Preparation: If using fresh coconut, measure the volume of grated flesh and pour over the same volume of boiling water. If using desiccated coconut, pour over 1 pint (580ml) of boiling water. Whiz in the processor, then strain, pressing through the first extraction of coconut cream. Set aside. Repeat the process to get the thinner second extraction milk. Strain it straight on to the sugar. Stir until sugar is dissolved. Allow both cream and milk to cool, but do not chill.

Quarter the melon and de-seed. Cut the flesh from the skin. Cut the flesh into matchstick-size pieces about 1 1/2 in (3.5cm) long. Divide between 6 bowls, together with any juice. Pour over the sweetened milk. Chill. Just before serving, float a layer of coconut cream on top of each bowlful.

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