Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, had a genuine passion for the melons grown around Cavaillon, in the heart of Provence. So much so, that in 1864, he donated all his published works to the town, in exchange for... a lifetime annuity of twelve melons!
In his Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine, he eloquently wrote: “I have only one wish... that my books should have the same charm for the people of Cavaillon as their melons have for me. This is both an expression of my gratitude to my good friends there and to show the whole of Europe that their melons are the best I know.”
The reputation of melons from Cavaillon, located in the Vaucluse department where hot summers and the mistral wind are ideal for growing this cucurbit, is not new. Produced since the Middle Ages in the region where the gourmet popes of Avignon had introduced it, its reputation was well established in Dumas’ time thanks to railroad development allowing them to be transported to Paris.
Since then, although annual production (2,500 tonnes) is a drop in the vast sea of melons harvested in France (270,000 tons), their reputation has never been disputed, and among high-quality melons, Cavaillon melons are barely rivalled by those from Quercy and Poitou.
Nothing is more delicious on a hot summer’s day
“In France today, when you talk about melons, everyone thinks of Cavaillon melons,” says Ghislain Jean, who produces 350 tons annually at his Ferme de Nogaret, in Monteux. Proudly, he adds: “When you buy a Cavaillon melon, you are 99.9% sure that it’s good.”
Sweet and juicy, 90% water and vitamin-rich, Cavaillon melons are ideal for summer eating. The production area, spanning the Vaucluse, Bouches-du-Rhône, and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence departments, is small (600 hectares), but the climatic variations allow harvesting from May to September.
The species is the yellow Charentais melon, or “cantaloup”, a round melon weighing around one kilogram with orange flesh and a smooth, light-green skin divided by dark-green ribs, which may be slightly netted. “There are different varieties,” says Ghislain Jean. “They’re selected at the beginning of the year according to sugar content, production plots, external quality, taste, and yield. For the Cavaillon melon, the sugar level, measured in degrees Brix using a refractometer, is the main criterion. The average level for a batch, i.e. fruit from one plot, must be at least 13° Brix, and no fruit can be below 11° Brix.”
Not all Cavaillon melons are created equal
How does the consumer select a melon? “You start by observing the skin,” says Ghislain Jean. “It should be spotless. Next, its peduncle [stem] should detach easily. If it’s big and round, that’s even better, meaning that the plant was vigorous and well-nourished. Another important criterion is weight. If deciding between two same-sized melons, always choose the heavier one – it’s full of juice.
“Next, the ribbing must be well-defined, well-marked, regular, and thin. A melon netted on one side and smooth on the other is a bad sign. Smell is not a criterion, because I can put four bad melons and four good ones on a tray and you’ll smell melon everywhere.
“Finally, you can detect an overripe melon by its stalk, if it’s shrivelled, for example. Or if the skin is a pale lemon-yellow colour.”
Because of the hot summers in Monteux, 30 minutes north of Cavaillon, Ghislain Jean harvests from mid-June to late August in his 20 hectares of melon fields. “Summer heat is not a problem because melons are tropical plants,” says Ghislain Jean. “What they need, however, is a temperature difference between day and night. If it’s 30-35°C during the day, that’s fine, as long as it’s around 20-22°C at night.
“Our melons are hand-picked daily by a team of workers at 100 kilos per person. They’re then taken to a station where samples are taken to measure sugar content. I’m lucky to have my own station. We then do a second sorting, eliminating deformed or green melons, for example. The melons are then certified as Melon de Cavaillon and can be sold in France and abroad. They are labelled and recognized by compulsory stickers or bands.”
Subject to strict controls
Melon de Cavaillon is a brand created in 1999 to protect producers from fraud and guarantee melon quality. Owned by the Marché d’Intérêt National de Cavaillon (a wholesale food-products market), it’s operated by the Syndicat des Maîtres Melonniers de Cavaillon (local melon producers federation) and will soon become a PGI, giving Cavaillon melons greater protection at the European level.
Currently, the Melon de Cavaillon brand includes around forty producers and 10 sites responsible for quality control as well as distribution. Packaged in single-layer trays or individually wrapped, they’re sold in local groceries, select supermarkets, and restaurants, but rarely, contrary to popular belief, at farmers’ markets.
“At markets, it’s very common to find melons produced in the Cavaillon region which haven’t been approved as Melons de Cavaillon,” says Océane Freydier, from the Syndicat des Melonniers. “They’re sold in bulk and carry no identification. In fact, even an approved producer cannot sell directly at markets without going through a quality-control station, and it’s the station alone that decides. I think the only market where you can find real Cavaillon melon is at the ‘Melon en Fête’, the local festival held in Cavaillon every July.”
How do you savor this coveted and prized ‘king of melons’, as it was nicknamed by another Cavaillon melon fanatic, former Cavaillon chef Jean-Jacques Prévôt? A true apostle of the melon, in his Michelin-starred restaurant Prévôt (alas, recently closed, defeated by COVID), he wouldn’t hesitate to offer all-melon menus; raw melon with beechwood-smoked haddock, lamb tajine with melon, or lobster bouillabaisse with melon.
Others, like Arnaud Nicolet, owner of l’Entrepotes, in Le Barroux, prefer it more simply prepared. “Cavaillon melon has the particularity of being very tasty, very firm, very crunchy,” he says. “With a product of this quality, it’s like strawberries: it’s better to leave it as natural as possible. I pair it with a good cured ham, with fresh mint or in association with Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, the local sweet wine. And when the melons are overripe, I make a gazpacho velouté.”
To really enjoy fresh Cavaillon melon, Ghislain Jean warns: “There’s one important thing to know. After slicing, it’s essential to remove the seeds delicately, gently sliding them out with the blade of a knife. The sweetest part of the melon, which nourishes the seeds, is in the centre. When I see people removing a good centimetre of flesh with the seeds, and then, to avoid waste, scraping the melon down to the rind, it horrifies me.”
“They don’t realise that they’re depriving themselves of the best part of the melon,” he says.
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