A tale of two melon-choly babies 

Where does a cantaloupe leave off and a muskmelon begin?

I’m standing at a popular Fraser Valley farm stand, two hefty melons in hand and I hear it coming before it actually does: "Hey, baby, nice pair of melons."

Thank goodness it’s a pal, one l haven’t seen in a while, and we catch up as we mull over the two locally grown melons.

One comes from the pile marked cantaloupes, and it’s a classic, with a greenish undercoat and a nice, even beige netting, pleasingly heavy for its size. The fragrance is a bit musky with the distinctive sweetness that can only mean – unlike its California cousins picked 100 years before you get them – it ripened on the vine.

The other is from the pile marked muskmelons. Muskmelons? I’ve always thought that was just another name for cantaloupes. My pal has never even heard of them before.

It’s also pleasingly fragrant and heavy for its size. But it’s more ovoid, with a much coarser netting over the greenish-brown undercoat, and it’s ribbed. Plus there’s a slight bump on the bottom and a bit of the stem still attached, things I’ve never seen on a cantaloupe.

We ask the clerk, who can’t help with our confusion, and the boss is out. So in the name of science and good taste I dutifully buy them both and bring them home. Let the melon challenge begin.

So we Canucks all know what a cantaloupe tastes like, right? Well, maybe not. If you’ve always relied on grocery stores for your melons you may be getting only the pale, hard, relatively tasteless version that I grew up with in Edmonton. My dad and grandpa would eat them with salt. I thought it was to eke out some kind of flavour, but turns out this is a venerable Old World tradition.

It’s really important that melons ripen on the vine. Because they don’t store starch, they won’t get sweeter after they’re picked. The fragrance may still develop post-picking, but it will never match a vine-ripened melon.

Ergo most Canadians haven’t ever tasted the real thing, unless they’ve been lucky enough to be in melon country, like the Okanagan or Fraser Valley, in late August through September. (Summer finishes a bit too cool and wet in Pemberton Valley for cantaloupes to be happy there.) Now if you lived in Kansas or California, you’d be sick of ripe cantaloupes by now.

So we cut into the vine-ripened cantaloupe – I’m drooling now just thinking about it. Ooh la la. The leathery skin offers a nice degree of resistance, then whoosh, the blade slides through the flesh. Juice spills out, along with a sweetish, musky aroma. (Muskmelon is so named because of the delightful odor of the ripe fruits. Musk in Persian means a kind of perfume; melon is French, from the Latin melopepo, meaning "apple-shaped melon".)

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