It is unclear whether the melon is native to India or the African deserts. What we do know is that it was grown in Egypt in 5 BC and then moved into Asia, through Persia and India. It existed in ancient Rome, but it was rare. The Moors took it to Spain in around the 7th or 8th century.
The melon entered France in the luggage of Charles VII (the King that Joan of Arc wanted to protect from the English) upon his return from waging war in Italy in 1497. He had discovered and fallen in love with the melon in Cantalupo, which was near Rome and owned by the popes.
These same popes, whose economic activity extended into all sectors, rapidly developed the cultivation of melons near Avignon, which belonged to them at the time. This is where the current melon variety "Cantaloupe" got its name.
It is no surprise that it was Christopher Columbus who introduced melons into the New World, on the island of Hispaniola in 1494. From there, the melon won over Central America, then Virginia and New York in the 17th century.
In France, under Louis XIV, la Quintinie, head gardener at Versailles, grew melons in the royal garden. As was the case for many other products, this royal endorsement quickly improved the melon's standing.
Melon growing then developed in the south of France and Poitou-Charentes, which are still the country's main melon-producing regions, and across the entire world, where melons are grown both in the ground and in greenhouses.
For a melon to be at its best, it must be perfectly ripe, which is not always easy to assess. The rind should depress slightly when pressed, but not be too soft, and should not have any brown spots or bruising.
It should smell pleasant, but if the smell is too strong or if there is a slight smell of ether, the melon is overripe.
The quality of a melon can be checked by holding the melon and seeing how heavy it is: the heavier it is for its size, the better it is. However, a crack around the stem is the best sign of ripeness.
Some producers attach a label to the fruit guaranteeing a minimum sugar content.
There are different sizes of melon, ranging from 350 g–1.35 kg.
Melon is also sold in the form of frozen balls, in pasteurized or frozen puree, in juice, or preserved.
Whatever the size of the melon, it must first be split in two and all seeds and filaments removed from the central cavity. Then the rind should be removed, unless the melon is small and served in halves. It is then cut into slices, quarters, or balls.
Melon is served raw, often with Parma ham, following the Italian tradition. In Greece, it is eaten with feta. Half-melons are often served with port, another fortified wine, or a granita, poured into the center.
Melon can be added to other fruits to make a salad, and can be made into sorbet, ice cream, or granita, or jam or chutney.
Melon should be stored in the open air, especially if it is not yet ripe.
If it must be kept in the refrigerator or cold room (which is not recommended because the cold affects the flavor), it should be wrapped so that its smell does not contaminate other products.
Rich in water and potassium and low in sodium, melons are known for their diuretic properties.
Melons with orange flesh have a very high carotene content. Their antioxidant power is further reinforced by their high vitamin C content.
There are a large number of varieties, more than 650, which can be broadly classified into a number of different types:
- Netted melons
This type of melon is so called because of its thick, rough rind. It has orange or light-green flesh. Varieties include: Galia, the most common, which has light-green flesh and is widely grown in Spain (April through October). Boule d'Or (also called "Golden Perfection"), orange flesh (May through late September). Netted cantaloupe (or Charentais), orange flesh. Emerald Gem, orange flesh (quite widely grown in North America). Montreal Melon, pale-green flesh, and Oka Melon, orange flesh, both grown in Quebec. Banana Melon: orange flesh, an old variety grown in North America.
- Smooth melons
Cantaloupe, also known as Charentais: pale green, almost smooth rind, with regular grooves, orange flesh. They represent 80% of melon production, and there are various sub-varieties. From January through October, they are successively grown in the Antilles, Morocco, southern France, and Poitou-Charentes.
White Antibes, from which the Honeydew Melon is derived: green to light-yellow skin, orange or pale-green flesh, grown in America, Australia, and Asia.
These oval melons can have either a smooth or ribbed rind. The flesh is very pale, almost white, and is usually mildly sweet (from June through November in France). Different varieties are grown around the world, including in Spain and Japan.
- Vert olive
Fat or elongated, with either a smooth or ribbed rind, light-green, crisp flesh, grown in Spain and southern France (August through November). In France, the Vert Olive de Provence is sometimes called the Melon vert olive d'hiver (winter green olive melon) or Melon de Noël (Christmas melon), as it can be stored right up to Christmas. The Piel de sapo melon (toad skin) is grown in Spain, Morocco, and Italy.
- Ogen (also: Hogen, Haogen, Ha'Ogen): green, speckled rind, pale green, thick flesh. Grown in Israel (November through June).
In France, the Haut Poitou and Quercy Melons have PGI (protected geographical indication) status.