Charentais – The French Melon

I grew up thinking a cantaloupe was a cantaloupe.

In West Texas, July brought a windfall of Pecos cantaloupes, surely the sweetest melons I’ve ever tasted.

Until now.

Shopping at the Scottsdale farmers market, I stopped at Seacat Gardens, and Carl Seacat asked me if I’d ever tasted a true cantaloupe.

Seacat, who farms an acre on the west side of Phoenix, says the netted melons we grew up with, and see in all the grocery stores this time of year, are really muskmelons — not true cantaloupes.

Front and center of his display, a bunch of orbs — some barely bigger than a softball — looked rather dwarfish, certainly nothing like the melons I thought of as cantaloupes.

Some were grayish green and others were marked with swaths of yellow streaks. The skins were smooth, unlike the webbed muskmelon-formerly-known-as-the-cantaloupe.

“These are Charentais,” he said, “a true cantaloupe — also called a French melon.”

And then he told me about the aroma, the taste, and before you know it, I’m handing over my wallet.

Seacat says Charentais (pronounced sha-rhan-tay, or in my best West Texas accent: Sharon-taze) emit heady floral fragrances and show pronounced yellowing when ripe. He told me to leave green ones on the counter a few days.

Back home, I sliced open the ripest one and immediately caught a whiff of honeysuckle — or was it jasmine or some blurred zephyr of the two?

The French wrap prosciutto around slices of Charentais. Seems rather Italian, doesn’t it?

My first inclination was to stand over the cutting board, which I did, biting into juicy slice after slice, sweet nectar dripping down my chin.

In my brain, the taste registered as cantaloupe, yet there was something marginally different about this melon.

The taste of honey filled my mouth. I swallowed and what lingered was sweet and floral.

At $3.75 a pound, perhaps it’s best to enjoy this melon alone, unadorned.

But I couldn’t help think of all the things I wanted to make with it.

Charentais salsa, with bits of red onion, jalapeno, mint and a spritz of lime.

Or a chilled Charentais soup, like the cantaloupe soup I submitted to Food 52.

Seacat told me that local pastry chef Tracy Dempsey was busy whipping up a Charantais sorbet as we spoke.

In the end, I decided to make a frothy Charentais frappé.

Still, I’m not sure anything beats eating Charentais straight from the cutting board.

Charentais Frappé

(printable recipe)

Look for Charentais melons at farmers markets. In the Phoenix area, Seacat Garden’s will have Charentais at the Scottsdale Stadium Farmers Market through the end of the summer. You can substitute 2-1/4 cups of cubed cantaloupe or honeydew for the Charentais. And by “cantaloupe” I mean muskmelon — which I swear I thought was a cantaloupe until I met the Charentais.

Serves 2

1 (1-1/4 pound) Charentais melon
1 cup lowfat vanilla yogurt
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom*

Peel and seed melon. Chop into large chunks. Place in the freezer for 10-15 minutes (don’t freeze completely).

Place the yogurt in a blender. Place the chilled melon chunks on top of the yogurt. Add lemon juice and cardamom.

Blend until frothy. Chill until ready to serve.

*Cardamom adds an exotic note, but you can use cinnamon, or a dash of nutmeg instead.

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6 Comments

Filed under Book & Product Reviews, Recipes

6 responses to “Charentais – The French Melon

  1. Geez, Gwen, these are almost too pretty not to grow–save some seeds. I betcha you cold get a crop before frost this year.

    I see all sorts of unknown melons at local stores and have sample a few that are delicious–will look for these.

    The cardamom will be perfect in this–just that noseful of scent.

  2. I remember tasting melons for the first time when I worked at Copia – they were just-picked and still warm inside from the sun. The smells, the flavors, had 10,000 times the dimension, the intensity, of a supermarket melon. Made me think it should be a crime to call both things by the same name. It was the first time that the light bulb really went off in my head, that I really understood the difference that is local and seasonal.

  3. Aren’t they magic? But they are so hard to find, at least in Northern California.
    My husband and I planted our first garden many years ago and blithely stuck 3 charentais seeds in the ground. One to rot, one for the birds, one to grow. They all thrived and we had 100s of little tennis ball sized, aromatic melons. That’s the good news. The bad is that they all ripened at once. We graced everyone we knew with baskets of melons. We gorged for the few days they were at their peak. Enjoy!

  4. Sharon… you should be up to your eyeballs in melons soon 😉

    Jill…that was a lovely description of how you came to embrace local and seasonal.

    Elyse…I envy your gardening skills 😉

  5. Planted 8 seeds, have 8 plantlets so far!

    We will see how many survive and bear.

  6. This sounds delicious. I can’t wait to try one out. Thanks!

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