The Watermelon Whisperer

Watermelon Salad with Feta, Pine Nuts and Basil

After endlessly insisting that I didn’t come from a very food-centered family, it’s time for me to come clean. The truth is that there are corners of the culinary universe that certain members of my family dominate with awe-inspiring mastery and skill; corners containing things that I would pay a king’s ransom to be able to do myself. Take my dad, for instance. It’s no secret that he has an inordinate fondness for fresh produce of all shapes and sizes; beyond that basic preference, though, you could be forgiven for thinking he’s not particularly picky about what gets tossed into his shopping cart or how it ends up on his plate. As long as it’s fresh and healthy, he seems to be happy, and he’s certainly more than willing to defer to me in all matters culinary whenever I’m around – whether that be in the supermarket or in the kitchen. Nevertheless, there is one thing that he always insists on procuring himself. This is a food he loves so dearly that in order to only buy it at its peak he’s spent a lifetime training himself to decipher its mottled signals and understand its complex clues. There’s no hasty once-over in the supermarket where this food is concerned, but instead a long, time-honored selection ritual that takes a good part of an afternoon and draws stares of curiosity from other customers. And despite the fact that I’ve been witnessing this ritual for 27 years, it’s an act in which I have never even dreamed of interfering, such is the complexity and sophistication of the technique. This food, my friends, is the watermelon, and when it comes to picking out a watermelon, my dad has a trick or two up his sleeve.

Going on a watermelon-buying expedition with him is a bit like throwing yourself into a bargaining session at a foreign market: it takes lots of time and patience, and many things are happening that you don’t quite understand. He begins with a deliberate glance over the offerings, looking at things like size, color and shape. When he’s spotted a likely candidate, he picks it up, cradling it in his arms like a baby, and shifts it into a comfortable position in the crook of his left arm. With his right hand he then begins a series of tapping motions, using his thumb and forefingers alternately in a kind of thwacking rhythm as if he were playing a bongo drum, all the while bending his head over the melon to listen intently to the sounds this produces. After listening for a few minutes, his face wrinkled in concentration, he’ll set the watermelon down and try another. This ritual continues indefinitely until the perfect melon has been found – and usually until he’s tapped and thwacked every melon on display. Don’t even try to ask him what he’s doing, though – the only answer you’ll get is ‘trying to find a good one.’

After years of patiently watching this display, it was inevitable that at some point my culinary braggadocio would surface. One day this summer we were standing in the supermarket; I was watching idly as he tapped and listened, tapped and listened, when suddenly arrogance and impatience won out and I spoke up.

"Don’t you know about the netting criteria?" I asked, trying to sound casual.
"Nope," he replied.
"Oh, see I recently read in one of my cookbooks that you can actually tell the sweetness of a watermelon by the amount of brown netting it has visible on the skin. It has something to do with the sugar content." I pointed to a melon he had just discarded which had a large amount of serpentine netting near the stem end. "Like this, see? It’s that simple. This one should be perfect."

He examined the melon I had pointed to, running his fingers over the brown marks. My pulse quickened – maybe I had just imparted the piece of crucial information that would seal the coffin forever on the interminable tap-and-listen.
He looked thoughtful for a minute, and then spoke. "But that only tells you about the sweetness, right?"
"And what about the juiciness, and the crispness of the flesh? What if it has a texture like wet cotton? Sweetness isn’t everything, watermelons are very complex."
"Oh, well, I didn’t think of that, " I said, my voice trailing off, instantly sorry I had opened my mouth.
He smiled wistfully. "I think I’ll stick to my way." And he went back to tapping.

I don’t know if it’s the feel of the flesh of a just-ripe watermelon under his thumb, or the particular sound it makes when he thumps it, or the melon’s weight, balance or smell, but somehow he’s figured out that secret language watermelons use to tell us they’re perfect. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true that in all my years of melon shopping with him he’s never brought home a dud. And usually the ones he picks out are so good, there’s nothing better than to eat them plain, ice-cold from the fridge in big, thick wedges. In fact, I was well into adulthood before the thought even crossed my mind that there was anything else one could do with a ripe watermelon besides just scarfing it down like that. Fortunately, though, I’ve discovered a couple of new uses for watermelons that are just as delicious even when I bring home the inevitable less-than-stellar specimen, as without the benefit of his help I often do.

I used to assume that one day he would get around to indoctrinating me into the ways of his secret melon methodology. But after seeing that mischievous glint in his eye that afternoon as he dismissed my prized new technique, I’m now quite sure he secretly enjoys having me one-up when it comes to food, even if that only extends to picking out watermelons.

Watermelon Salad with Feta, Pine Nuts and Basil

Watermelon and feta may sound like a strange combination to you, but it’s eaten this way all over the Eastern Mediterranean – the salty-sweet combination works really well. Combined with the crunchy pine nuts and fragrant basil, this has become one of my favorite ways to enjoy this beautiful melon, and it’s reliably delicious whether I’ve managed to pick a perfect one or not.
Serves: 4 

about 1/2 medium-sized watermelon, flesh cubed or cut into slices and seeds removed
8oz/200g good-quality feta, crumbled
1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted
handful fresh basil leaves, torn into pieces
a few spoonfuls of extra-virgin olive oil
freshly-ground black pepper 

Combine the watermelon, feta, pine nuts and basil leaves in a large bowl or platter. Drizzle with some extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkle with pepper. Eat immediately.