‘Marriage is like a melon, it’s a question of luck’
(Provençal proverb)

Melons are notoriously difficult to choose but, in summer in Provence, your chances are actually quite high of finding perfect, sun-drenched, sweet, succulent, scented melons. Eaten with raw ham, filled with Muscat de Beaumes de Venise (a sweet local wine) or simply just as they are, they are one of the highlights of a summer meal in Provence.

When you come off the A7 autroute at Cavaillon, gateway to the Luberon, you can hardly fail to miss the huge sculpture of a melon beside the first roundabout. Weighing in at 9 tonnes, this enormous melon indicates that you’re entering the Melon Capital of Provence.

Melons have been grown in the region since the Popes were in Avignon in the 14th century but the renown of melons from Cavaillon started in the mid 19th century when it became possible to ship produce rapidly to the Paris markets by train. In the 1950s melon production in Cavaillon accounted for 64% of the melons grown in France. This figure has diminished but the region still produces more than any other in France with an annual production of about 130,000 tonnes.

There’s an amusing anecdote related to Cavaillon melons and the prolific French author and gastronome, Alexandre Dumas, who wrote The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. In 1864, the newly established Cavaillon library wrote to a number of French writers asking for donations of their books. Quick to seize an opportunity, Alexandre Dumas replied that he would be delighted to donate copies of all his books in exchange for an annuity of twelve melons. The town councillors passed a by-law and the deal was done, twelve melons were dispatched by rail to Dumas in Paris every year until his death in 1870. Subsequently, in his Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine, Dumas wrote that he wished to tell all Europe that the melons from Cavaillon were the best of any he knew.

The principal variety grown around Cavaillon since the 1920s is cantaloupe, otherwise known as charentais. The pale green skin, which can be either smooth or covered in a sort of green tracery, encases the delicious, fragrant, orange flesh. Advice on how to choose the perfect melon varies but here are some things to look for:

• Pick one that is light green veering towards yellow in colour with marked green stripes.
• Weigh it in the palm of your hand – it should feel solid and heavy (test two, the heavier one will be better).
• Sniff it – the scent should be subtle, not too strong.
• Look at the stem – it’s ripe if there’s a crack forming around the base of the stem.
• It must be fresh – the skin should be neither too hard nor too soft.

If all this seems like too much effort, we suggest you look around the market and pick a melon stall where there’s a queue. Join it and ask the stallholder to pick one for you. You’ll probably be asked when you want to eat it to ensure that you get one that’s just right. It has to be said that melons seem to reflect the terroir on which they are grown (in the same way that grapes do) and they all taste slightly different, so once you find a producer whose melons you like, stick with him/her.

Bon appétit!

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