I have a long running obsession with French cantaloupes. The memories of a chance encounter in the south of France nearly 15 years ago are as strong today as they were then. The bright orange flesh, the heady scent and the intense flavor still sends me over the moon on those rare occasions then I can find these beauties. Occasionally, for just a few weeks every year, my friend Pete has them at his Green City Market farm stand. And that time is now. I picked up two last week and another yesterday but the truth is, I was lucky this year. Since I spent a good portion of my summer in France, I had these gorgeous melons nearly every day for breakfast. I’ve never been happier.
I’ve tried growing them in my little garden plot – twice – to utter failure. Pete tells me they’re rather difficult to grow so I take some comfort in that. Technically, these melon varieties are called Charentais or Cavaillon and are of the Savor variety but in France they’re just known as “melon”. Leave it to the French to be so blaise about something so amazing – no 18 varieties, just melon simple as that. The markets are full of them and even the grocery stores have beautiful piles, stacked high.
While I was working at Le Pont de L’Ouysse this summer, Chef Daniel took us on an outing to the market at the nearby town of Brive-la-Gaillarde, a market he frequents for the restaurant. When I stopped to buy a melon, Chef said “No, no! Take one from the restaurant.” Well, I wasn’t about to take food from the cooler so I insisted on purchasing my own. French men can be so gallant but I didn’t want to take advantage of his kindness.
After he realizes I’m sticking to my guns, he grabs my hand and says we must see his friend who grows the best melons. Well, OK, I can get behind this. Chef Daniel, having grown up in the area, knows everyone (later we meet his buddies for lunch, but that’s another story.) So I meet this farmer, who’s name now escapes me, and a lively conversation takes place with a lot of nods between Chef and this man while I stand there trying desperately to follow their rapid conversation. They look at me, very intently, and ask when I plan on eating these melons. “Well, today, tomorrow, Monday … “. The rapid fire conversation continues. My French comprehension isn’t that great, especially at high speeds, but I do catch a few words, most particularly the word cinq. Five. Wait … they have decided that I need FIVE melons? What? “Non! Non! Deux melons, s’il vous plait monsieur!” Now I love these things, but five is a bit much even for me. Two will suffice.
The conversation continues, I keep interjecting but it doesn’t seem to matter – “Deux. Non, deux.” A lot of laughing takes place. At one point, Chef smiles at me indulgently. “Quatre” (four). Oh lord. Finally, I decide to split the difference and we settle on the lucky number three. Agreed, smiles all around. The farmer takes some time to find the exact perfect specimens and I am presented with a very heavy bag. Somehow a transaction has taken place and my money is sweetly ignored. I’m not too clear on what just happened but I am now in the possession of a very heavy bag, my money and a new friend among many thank yous and French double kisses. It was all very whirlwind and quite funny.
The scent in the car was a little intoxicating, quickly filling the small space and created a Pavlovian response – I was literally drooling as I fumbled with the lock on my little cottage door. I could not wait to dig into my treasures. Upon unpacking, I noticed something interesting I hadn’t caught back at the market. Each melon has a series of marks; 1-3 X’s carefully made with a black Sharpie so I know what day I should be eating which melon. The farmer has carefully selected my little beauties based on when they would be absolutely ideal to consume. It’s just one of the lovely things I love about the French. When you eat something is just as important was what you eat.
Truth be told, I had trouble sticking to the “X” schedule. Three melons is a lot for one person to eat, even me, and the heady scent pretty much overwhelmed my little kitchen every morning. But even now, just thinking about it, I am transported right back to that little terrace overlooking the little valley of La Cave and yes, I am drooling ever so slightly.
Last year, I made another soup with these melons, a creamy Asian inspired dish. This weekend, I opted for something much simpler based on a recipe I picked up from my friend Kate Hill with whom I spent the later part of my trip at her cooking retreat in Gascony. In fact, we made this soup with the last of my X’d melons. I told you I was off schedule.
This couldn’t be easier; simply puree the extremely ripe melon with some wine – a sweeter wine is best – something acidic like sherry vinegar or a little lemon or lime juice and a pinch of salt. That’s it. She sticks a few sprigs of fresh lemon verbena in the mixture to infuse the soup with it’s lovely flavor and I did too, because I had it. A little Thai basil or the zest of a lemon would work too. Then you chill this until it’s ridiculously cold and enjoy.
Believe me, I know that these little French melons can be hard to find but you can make this with any variety, however, make sure they are extremely ripe and ridiculously fragrant. If the melon is subpar, the soup will be too. Kate also did a nifty little garnish that was rather tasty – she took a hard dry salami and grated a little bit on a microplane for some thin, salty porky shavings on top of the soup. It was a nice touch and accented the soup beautifully.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: ZILCH. This has got to be the most unstressful recipe in the history of recipe writings assuming you’re starting with a great melon. Unbelievably relaxing and if you have a melon lover among your crowd, they will be ridiculously pleased. 4 or 5 ingredients zipped up with a stick blender and voila, there you have it. In fact, using a stick blender is always a good time, just make sure you keep the bottom submerged or you’ll spray soup all over your kitchen walls.
COLD MELON SOUP
Makes 2 quarts, serves 4
I really adore Cavallion and Charentais melons but those can be hard to find. Just make sure you use a really ripe, fragrant and flavorful melon.
2 medium melons, extremely ripe and fragrant
¾-1 cup white wine, sweeter the better
2 teaspoons sherry vinegar (or lemon or lime juice)
2 sprigs lemon verbena
pinch of sea salt
- Halve the melons, scoop out the seeds and remove the peel.
- Roughly chop the melon into 1” pieces and place in a large bowl – you should have about 8 cups (3 ¼ lbs).
- Add a healthy pinch of salt, the wine and sherry and puree until smooth– in batches in a blender or food processor or use an immersion blender right in the bowl.
- Submerge the lemon verbena sprigs into the soup and chill until very very cold.
- Serve cold in small glasses without the lemon verbena, or chop a little on top for garnish. Or for a special treat, grate a little of a very hard, very dry salami on top.