In Season: How to find locally grown, flavorful melons

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Finally there has been enough heat and sunshine to ripen the melons.

Seek out locally grown melons for several good reasons. Growers serving our local farmers markets are more likely to plant the best-tasting types of melons because they don’t have to worry about shipping ability, like the big, conventional Central Valley growers who ship across the country.

Also, since they don’t have to travel, they will more likely be picked ripe from the vine. Not only that, but melons from Sonoma County growers sold at farmers’ markets are more likely to be organic. Conventionally farmed melons from farms farther inland may use a range of pesticides, fungicides and nematocides.

We usually lump muskmelons, cantaloupes, honeydews, canary, Crenshaw and watermelons under the heading of melon, but it pays to be a little more categorical. The first five melons in that list are all Cucumis melo, while watermelons are Citrullus lanatus, another genus and species altogether.

True cantaloupes — named for a town outside Rome — have a fine flavor prized around the world. Although they have been hard to find in the U.S., specialty farmers are growing more of them in recent years.

A variety called Charentais is the most well-known, and in France, a half cantaloupe is traditionally served with a splash of sweet dessert wine, like a Barsac, in its empty seed cavity. These fruits are about the size of a baseball, with a gray-green, hard rind with some warts or scales, but no netting. To be picked vine-ripe, they’re harvested when the rind color half-changes from gray-green to buff, so look for that buff color if you find them from a local grower. Also, give the blossom end a whiff. It should have a faint aroma of melon.

Muskmelons, on the other hand, are so named for the pleasant but definitely musky smell they develop when ripe, and a whiff of the blossom end of a ripe muskmelon will strongly tell you that it’s ready to eat. Their rinds usually have the characteristic netting, and when these melons are ripe, they slip, or separate easily, from the vine attachment. Also, their blossom ends will yield to moderate thumb pressure. The fragrance and slight softening of the blossom ends tells you that they are ready to eat, or very soon will be.

As long as the melons are sound, you can let them ripen a few days more on the kitchen counter, where they’ll become even more meltingly delicious but don’t let them go past the point of perfection or they’ll only be good for sherbet. Their flesh can be green, salmon, orange or white. The rinds of the green and white-fleshed types turn golden yellow when ripe.

Honeydews also slip when ripe, but have cream-colored rinds and green or orange flesh. As with muskmelons, they are ripe when the blossom ends soften and yield to moderate thumb pressure. They carry a lovely fragrance.

Crenshaw melons have a fine flavor all their own. Their salmon-pink flesh is spicy-sweet and refreshing. Crenshaws are a cross between a casaba melon, which is rare in that it has no aroma, and a fragrant Persian melon, with a green, finely netted rind.

None of the melons are very high in nutrients, since most are mainly water. But darker, orange-fleshed melons are higher in beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A, than green or white-fleshed types.

Watermelons make summer heat waves fun — or as fun as they can be. Find seedless sugar baby watermelons, with their green-black rind, and keep them chilled in the fridge. They’re only from 6 to 8 inches in diameter, and their sweetness and flavor is better than most varieties. Among the big, full-size watermelons, flesh colors range from yellow to orange to bright red among many varieties. As for quality, I don’t think I’ve ever met a watermelon I didn’t like.

Then there are the hybrid cultivars whose DNA is a mishmash of Cucumis types. They include superior varieties, such as the superb Charentais, Crane, Bailan, Hami, Montreal, Sprite and sugar melons, among many others.

Melons’ peak quality comes in late August and early September. Of course, that’s when the Crane melons come ripe. If you’re new to Sonoma County, be aware that the Crane melon was bred here and is a local specialty. You can buy them at selected local markets and at the Crane Melon Barn on Petaluma Hill Road between Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park.

Oh, another thing about Crane melons, and something that just about everyone who’s lived in this area already knows, is that for delicious melon flavor, you’ll hardly find a better melon.

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Melons may be best simply served alone, cold, on a warm summer day. If they must have partners, this recipe puts together a quartet of flavors that have a long history of pleasing palates.

Melons with Figs and Prosciutto

Serves 4

2 ripe melons

8 ripe figs

½ pound very thinly sliced prosciutto

— juice of 2 limes

Cut the melons in half, remove the seeds, cut each half into four slices, cut off the rinds, set them in a bowl and squeeze on the lime juice. On each of four plates arrange four crescents of melon attractively, grace with two figs and drape slices of the prosciutto over the melon. Serve immediately.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net

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