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.


26 thoughts on “The Watermelon Whisperer

  1. I find melons maddeningly difficult to choose! I’d been relying on a local melon seller who reliably gave me perfect melons every time, but he hasn’t been at our market this year, so I’ve been lost. Maybe I could get your father to preselect melons for me and ship them to San Francisco;)

  2. hi melissa, that was a really funny post…my dad is exactly the same way…not about watermelons, but crabs…he has an uncanny ability for picking out the sweetest, plumpest specimens (replete with unorthodox methodology, of course)…that picture is breathtaking…the very essence of eastern mediterranean bounty…

  3. Hi Melissa,What a great story. I’ve been eating watermelons forever and still don’t have a tried and true technique for picking one out — I still get duds every now and again. The salad sounds tasty, something that I should try one of these days!

  4. Dear MelissaThe ability to pick out great produce is such a rare, almost mystical, yet often underrated talent isn’t it? I really enjoyed reading this post, and gazing at your artfully styled and photographed dish.

  5. My technique to picking out good fruit and vegetables? Prayer! Yeah, that and sniffing them a bit. ;-)Your latest recipe sounds and looks great. I love the idea of the salty-sweet combination.Paz

  6. Hi Nic – Absolutely, if he ever deems me worthy!Hi Brett – You never realize how much you need a good produce seller until they’re gone – it’s amazing how much difference it makes! I’ll make sure to ask my dad if he’s considered a new career in melon purveying… ;)Hi Beth – It’s a really surprisingly good combination – give it a try if you can get your hands on some good melon!Hi Jeanne – Thanks! You know, the tomatoes I’ve been bringing home haven’t even been this red…Hi J – Oh, I love a good crab too. Funny how men seem to have these mystical abilities – if we got our fathers together we could have quite a feast!Hi Gemma – Thanks! I hope your odyssey is off to a good start!Hi Reid – I know exactly what you mean. I was really excited to learn about the netting thing, and barring any better technique it’s the one I’ve started using myself. Nevertheless, it’s far from foolproof…Hi S – Thanks, and well said. Some people seem to have been born with a gift, but for the rest of us it’s sure a lot of trial and error…Hi Paz – Prayer, very funny! Sniffing is definitely a good method for a lot of fruits, but I think probably the best technique is probably to buy as close to the source as possible – it never ceases to amaze me how much better everything tastes straight from the hands of the people who grew it!

  7. What a great talent and what a great story. It for some strange reason reminds me of those talented squirrels in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Your salad also looks delicious. What a wonderful warm weather treat.

  8. Sweet story and a really beautiful picture, Melissa! I’ve seen lots of recipes for watermelon&feta salads recently, but haven’t attempted it myself yet. Your post is tempting – if I come across a nice-looking watermelon, I’ll give it a try. Though I am really lacking in the “how to spot the perfect one” skills unfortunately;(

  9. Melissa, the salad looks gorgeous! the colours are stunning, and the presentation is perfect! Ive heard of the combination of watermelon and feta before, particularly with black olives added in. Its always peaked my curiosity, but I’ve never tried it. Your combination seems quite lovely though, and worthy of giving it a try. I am terrible at picking out watermelons, and usually go for the ones that are already quartered. Even then, I still somehow manage to find the duds.

  10. hi mel, i remember when u told me about the brown lines on the melons in the supermarket in vigeland! wellwell, i sure did believe u! the funny thing is my father in law, mr tahmaz, (!) apparently has the same time consuming particularities when choosing watermelons.i promise to buy watermelons n figs tomorrow, although it will drain me to carry a whole melon all the way home. will be twice as healthy then…

  11. hi melissa, im very new to your blog … kinda chanced upon it … and im totally mesmerized! ur blog rocks!!! hehe… i mean its really gorgoeous looking …all the food looks yummy! and the stories are so captivating! Very very well done!and this watermelon salad looks so good and so easy! will definitely try it soon!

  12. I loved your description of your dad communing with the watermelon. I could just picture it! Alas it’s a valuable skill I am yet to acquire =(Wonderfully written post as always and great picture. I keep meaning to try watermelon with fetta. It sounds strange but good.

  13. Hi Chubby Hubby – Have you seen the recent movie? I haven’t yet, but I read that Tim Burton spent 6 months having squirrels trained for that scene!Hi Pille – I started seeing versions of these salads last summer, it seemed like every celebrity chef had ‘their version’. Anyhow, if you try ‘my version’ let me know what you think, and as for choosing the watermelon, well, sometimes Paz’s technique is the only one at our disposal!Hi Michele – Thank you! You know, I’ve heard so many conflicting opinions on whether it’s good or bad to buy precut watermelons – those in favor say it gives you the opportunity to inspect the flesh thus increasing chances of getting a good one, while those against say that you’ll never experience really perfect watermelon that way since melons start degrading the moment they’re cut. I don’t really know – usually I just don’t risk it and wait until I go visit my dad every summer! :)Hi Megwoo – Thanks!!Hi googs – I knew there was something good about marrying into that family! 😉 Maybe he can teach you something – obviously my netting criteria is far too simplistic for the true conoisseurs! Don’t kill yourself dragging home that melon – maybe you can find yourself a big strong Dane to help you…Hi cass – Welcome, and thanks so much! If you give this salad a try, let me know how you like it! Hi AG – Ha ha, yeah sometimes I’m convinced if only I listen hard enough I’ll hear the melon actually talking to him… And I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the melon-feta combination – strange but good with the emphasis definitely on the latter! 🙂

  14. Hi!I would like to invite you to participate in “I Like ’em Spicy!”, a fortnightly food event, where all participants have to come up with a spicy recipe using the Star Ingredient (which is different every fortnight)!The rules are simple:1. The recipe has to use the Star Ingredient as the base of the dish2. It has to be SPICY!!3. Dishes can be of any form you can imagine, appetizers, mains, desserts, drinks…whatever you can come up with!On the 1st and 15th of every month, I will the post the Star Ingredient and you are expected to email your entries to by the next two weeks.At the end of the two weeks, I will post all the recipes on a special blog built especially for “I Like ’em Spicy!” so you can all view the fabulous entries!For further details do drop in “Hooked on Heat”, at and join in on the fun!- Meena(

  15. Melissa – I just posted a very similar recipe as one of my new favourite warm-weather salads…we must have been sharing a brain because I hadn’t yet read yours when I wrote mine! Weird…and here I thought most people had never heard of the odd but delicious combination of watermelon and feta. YUM.

  16. very nice.i also like watermelon and feta cubes on a rosemary sprig skewer. altho’ it can be tricky to get them perfect cubes.

  17. Hi Jennifer – That’s funny, it must be a last desperate attempt to hold on to summer! Yours looks great too, and I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one familiar with this fantastic combo.Hi Faustianbargain – That’s a very interesting idea with the rosemary. If I ever make this for a party I’ll keep that in mind!

  18. i just happened across your blog today and have spent the last hour and a half pouring through!i tap watermelons as well- the hollow sounding ones tend to not be mushy. i also look for bee stings to determine sweetness.rachael

  19. Oh, this is just too good- both the story and the food. You are such an excellent writer! Love your dad for being a watermelon whisperer. My dad was also very much a foodie. You made me miss him a lot reading this, but in a good way.Thanks!

  20. Hi Melissa, I love this recipe, and am preparing it for an upcoming summer wedding party where it will fit in nicely with the Mediterranean theme. However there is a shortage of pine nuts right now and the ones we are getting just don't have much flavor. Is there something else I could substitute or should I leave nuts out entirely? Also, any special tips for making large portions of this? thanks! Lynn

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