Every summer, piles of gold are sold in the Provencal town of Cavaillon. The gold in question is not the precious metal measured in karats, it is the melon measured in kilos: a succulent, intensely fragrant, golden globe recognised as the town treasure. Quite a few towns have statues commemorating a local celebrity, but at the entrance to Cavaillon you are greeted by a 9-ton sculpture of a melon!
The golden fruit has been part of local history for at least five centuries and has brought the town prosperity and fame for close to 150 years. It has provided a steady source of income, attracted an increasing stream of visitors, inspired painters, poets, and master chefs, generated festivals and even caused the odd death or two.
The first Cavaillon melons of the year, reared in heated greenhouses, appear in April. They tend to be crunchier and less aromatic than those that follow. From May to mid-June, melons grown in unheated greenhouses dominate the market. They prepare the palate for the peak of the season, from mid-June to September, when the melons ripen in the fields and cross the taste boundary from mortal fruit to heavenly ambrosia.
History of a melon
Melons have been cultivated in the Cavaillon region since at least 1495, when Charles VIII is reported to have brought some seeds back with him from Italy, where melons were raised in the country gardens of the popes, in Cantelupo, near Rome. Known as Cantaloup melons, chances are that they had already been introduced to Provence a century and a half earlier, when Avignon was the official residence of the popes. The highest representatives of the Catholic Church certainly consumed melons, very much a luxury delicacy at the time, with a relish bordering on religious fervour. Pope Paul II was such a melon glutton that he died from gorging himself on them in 1471, and Pope Clement VIII may have been struck down by a similar fate in 1605.
In Cavaillon, the real “gold rush” began in the second half of the 19th century when the weekly fresh produce market became so busy that the municipal council could proudly note that it “excites among the neighbouring towns, not jealousy, but astonishment and admiration.”
Among the admirers of Cavaillon’s delicious melons was the writer and bon-vivant Alexandre Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, etc.). In 1864, when the new municipal library asked popular French writers to donate some of their works, Dumas responded promptly. As generous as he was prolific, he donated all 194 of his published works to Cavaillon and promised to send a copy of all his future publications as well, on just one condition: a life annuity, of twelve melons a year. The town fathers were delighted to grant Dumas his request, and until his death in 1870, a dozen melons were dispatched to him every summer.
The melon variety grown in Provence since the mid-1920s is the Charentais, originally developed in the Charentes region in west-central France. Charentes remains a major melon producer, though the region is more famous for its alcohol: Cognac. The Charentais melon of Cavaillon is a fragrant star of the European cantaloupe family and at its best is far more succulent than the North American cantaloupe. In fact, the North American cantaloupe is technically a muskmelon and its net-like or webbed rind quickly differentiates it from the skin of the European canteloupe.
The Charentais can be either lisse (smooth-skinned), or brodé (its skin “embroidered” with a filigree of raised markings). The potent perfume evokes violets, jasmine and almonds when the fruit is not quite ripe, and later develops into a honeyed concentrate of apricot, passion fruit and banana. The fragrance pervades every market stall and shop where melons are sold and embalms every table where they are served. The taste lives up to the divine smell: the bright orange flesh is luscious, juicy and honey sweet. Furthermore, a 7-ounce serving provides plenty of Vitamin C, but only 100 calories, which makes greed without guilt a delicious possibility.
Gastonomony and the melon
An important chapter in the recent history of Cavaillon as melon capital of France began in 1978 when Jean-Jacques Prévôt, a chef from the far north of France, was driving by and his car broke down in Cavaillon. Little did he or the good town folk suspect that the gastronomic Golden Age of the melon was about to begin. In the 24 hours it took to make repairs, Jean-Jacques met his first Charentais melon and the girl he wanted to marry—the one introducing him to the other—and he decided to stay for love of them both. Twenty-six years later, he is Cavaillon’s “Monsieur Melon”: no one else has explored the versatility of the melon with more ingenuity and passion than he has; no one has been more ardent and persuasive an ambassador for the golden fruit.
The eponymous restaurant he opened in 1981 is dedicated, in the best of tastes, to the melon. The bright, elegant dining room was redecorated in a purer style last year, with the melon theme not as omnipresent as it once was at first glance. But look around and you still find it everywhere, from the napkin rings and cutlery on the tables, to the antique melon knives, pitchers, plates, and sculptures on display, to the paintings, cartoons, and sketches on the walls. Even the buns come in the shape of a melon! Thankfully, every object has been so lovingly and expertly chosen that the collection does not fall into the kitsch trap.
Jean-Jacques’s boundless enthusiasm for all things melon has spread throughout Cavaillon. A brotherhood known as the Conférie des Chevaliers de l’Ordre du Melon was founded in 1987 to preserve and promote the glory of the local fruit. The melon-loving popes would have approved of these apostles who conduct their business with all the ritual solemnity of a Holy Order. Clad in black robes, wearing a melon medallion, rather like a tastevin, on a broad ribbon around their neck, the Knights of the Melon do not shrink from hyperbole. During his inaugural speech, the Grand Melon Master, Emile Morlot, proclaimed: “The melon IS Cavaillon!” and went on to cite the 20,000 tons of prime Cavaillon melons produced locally every year.
The enthronement ceremony with which the brotherhood welcomes new members every year has been a majestic mainstay of the annual melon festival of Cavaillon ever since it was launched in 1997. “Melon en fête” stretches over several days in mid-July and gives young and old their fill of melons, not just fresh from the fields, but also candied, baked, cooked into jam, distilled into liqueurs, coated with chocolate, in short, served up every way you can possibly imagine and some you have not even dreamt of.
All of Cavaillon is caught up in a veritable “melon-mania”. Pyramids of melons dominate the market square; melon paintings are exhibited in the streets; a communal banquet featuring melon dishes is held under the plane trees: bus excursions tour the local melon farms; pastry chefs and chocolatiers vie with each other to come up with the most imaginative melon speciality. Should anyone find this just a tad too much of a good thing, the program also includes all the more general, classic ingredients of any good town fair, such as a parade, concerts, dancing, market stalls, and pony rides.
Once the July melon orgy has passed, Cavaillon settles down again and visitors get the chance to see that, besides melons, the town has a Roman arch, a 12th century hillside chapel and hermitage, a splendid synagogue and cathedral, a museum of Jewish heritage, and an archaeology museum.
As for the golden globes that are Cavaillon’s glory, they continue to ripen in the fields until September, condensing the sunshine of Provence into a little piece of taste bud heaven.
How to choose a melon
Tips provided by Jean-Jacques Prévôt of Restaurant Prévôt, 353 avenue de Verdun, 84300 Cavaillon. Tel. 04 90 71 32 43.
Look at it: A melon should have spotless skin veering towards a pale gold, with bluish-green stripes marking its segments
Pick it up: A melon should be heavy, gorged with sugary juice and flesh.
Examine its “tail”: The stem end should be thick and green, indicating that the melon has been picked within the last three days. A circular crack should show around the stem, from which a drop or two of dark-red, crystallised juice sometimes oozes. This is a sure sign of a well-ripened, sweet melon.
Take a deep sniff: The stem end should smell nothing less than divine!
Now change ends: The bigger the blossom end of the melon, the better. Many people claim that melons with big “mamelons” (nipples) are females, but melons are unisex. The large blossom end is the result of dried flower remains rubbing against the melon, which stimulates its defence system and produces a tastier fruit.
© 2010, Ester Laushway
Ester Laushway has consumed the beauties, wine and food of Provence without moderation for the past 15 years and lived to tell the tales. She holds a degree in oenology, works as a restaurant critic for the Gantié Guide, and organizes food and wine tours.