Melons of Memory

Watermelon in Rose-Lime Syrup 

Growing up in coastal California, the changing of the seasons didn’t play much of a role in my life. Apart from the occasional winter cold snap that would throw the state’s orange harvest into peril, and the infamous summer fog that could turn a sweltering picnic into a bone-chilling nightmare within minutes, things were pretty much constant in a mild, blue-skies kind of way. While there were certainly upsides to weather like this (such as I didn’t own a real winter coat until well into my teens), there were downsides too, and one of those concerned, of all things, food. The problem was, you see, that I grew up with no clue about seasonality, no conception that certain foods only grow naturally at certain times of the year. With year-round sunny skies it seemed perfectly reasonable to expect strawberries on my cereal in February and blueberries on my pancakes in November, and while probably some of what we ate was flown in from other hemispheres, much of it was even – if industrial agribusiness can be called as such – locally grown. The fact that such fruit was tasteless was beside the point; it was there and it looked ripe, so regardless of what the calendar said, we ate it.

There was one exception to this, however: summer, and summer only, was watermelon time. My father, the most passionate consumer I have ever known, would wait all year, eyeing the winter melons flown in from Mexico with disdain, until sometime in late June he would start prodding the specimens on display at his local market, thwacking and tapping and sniffing for several weeks until finally he deemed them ready. Then and only then, we would lug one home, a deep-green, sausage-shaped monster weighing nearly as much as I did, clearing off an entire shelf in the fridge to accommodate it. When it had chilled to icy perfection, carving it up had its own special protocol: taking the biggest knife he had, my dad would divide the melon’s stubborn midsection into massive slices, like rounds cut from the trunk of an ancient tree, sometimes so big they would dwarf the dinner plates he put them on. We would use both fork and knife to attack them, as if they were steaks instead of pieces of fruit on our plates, and we would always start from the center of the slice – the crispest, sweetest part – and work our way outwards, spitting the black seeds into the enlarging hole in the middle, until we were left with nothing but a hollow green ring and a stomach almost painfully full. Though the ritual itself was certainly half the fun, in my memory those watermelons were truly something special, so sweet and perfumed they seemed almost hyper-real, and the fact that they were only available for a couple of months each year made each one taste only sweeter.

They say that once you’ve eaten something at the peak of its ripeness, nothing else can ever compare. That would seem to explain why finding good watermelon is such an exercise in frustration for me now, but I actually think there’s more to it than that. In fact, I know that a large part of it is down to biology, as those exquisite, oblong watermelons of my youth are becoming an endangered species, replaced by a growing preference for hybrid seedless varieties. ‘Who would want to eat seeds when you can eat seedless?’ seems to be the prevailing mantra, yet I can only assume that the people buying into these new-fangled hybrids have never actually tasted a truly good watermelon. The differences between the two, at least to my tastebuds, are gargantuan; where the seeded melon is complex, floral, and slightly acidic, the seedless melon is watery and cloying with only the barest whisper of that quintessential watermelon flavor. Not to mention that they’re not even really seedless – it’s just that the seeds, being white instead of black, are more difficult to spot before consumption. And lest you think this is some kind of localized problem, it’s not; my dad, who now lives in Oregon, is currently only able to find seeded melons at one lone store in his area, while here in Scotland, the exclusively seedless melons we get by now are not even worthy of their name.

Though I could go on all day about the lunacy of breeding out flavor for convenience, it’s not actually all bad. In fact, as a result of so many mediocre melons, I’ve discovered some pretty interesting ways of serving them up that do a good job of masking their flaws. This watermelon-feta salad is one spectacular example, and I’ve recently discovered another that is currently causing some dangerously obsessive behavior chez nous (and not just from me, which is always a good sign!). Though you could easily get away with calling this a drink, a dessert or a snack, I don’t really know which one is most accurate; all I know is that it’s so, so delicious, and so, so easy. You basically just cube up the flesh of a watermelon – something with some flavor is best, and the flesh really shouldn’t be mushy – and you leave it to soak in a sweet and icy bath tinged with rosewater and lime. Although it may not sound like much, the rosewater works some sort of alchemy on the melon, amplifying and rounding out its fragrance, while the lime provides acidity and a hint of spice to this knockout trinity of flavors. It’s also a two-for-the-price-of-one affair, which is always welcome news; after crunching your way through the sweet, saturated melon cubes, you have the most ambrosial – and refreshing – watermelon-infused nectar waiting to quench any last remnants of thirst.

I heartily encourage you to give it a try, but I do want you to promise me one thing. If by any miracle you manage to bring home that perfect melon – you know, the kind that makes you wonder how on earth you ever considered your life complete before tasting it – you won’t do anything with it except get out your biggest knife, slice off a hunk of completely immodest proportions, and find yourself some sunny corner in which to devour it, bite by luscious bite. And then you’ll give me a call – I’ll be on the next plane to join you.

Watermelon in Rose-Lime Syrup

I have Indian blogger Richa to thank for inspiring this one – her rhapsodizing, which is what lured me in, is every bit justified. I have naturally made a few of my own adjustments, such as the substitute of lime juice for lemon, and I’ve left out the pinch of black salt, that pungent, sulfurous salt commonly found in Indian snacks and drinks. Though I haven’t yet tried the combination myself – I’m too enamored of it just like this – if you have some on hand, by all means throw in a pinch and see what it adds. Also, I find that preparing a simple syrup is the best way to sweeten this, as you can add more of it to taste at any point without having to worry about undissolved sugar, but if you can’t be bothered to fire up the stove, just throw in some superfine (caster) sugar and you shouldn’t have a problem… that is, apart from the fact that however much of this you make there is never enough!

For the simple syrup: 
2 cups (400g) sugar
2 cups (500ml) water

1 watermelon, flesh seeded and cut into small (1/2-in/1cm) cubes
lime juice, to taste
splash of rosewater (most Indian and Middle Eastern brands are good)
ice cubes

In a medium saucepan combine the sugar and water and heat until the sugar has completely dissolved, stirring occasionally. Remove and let the syrup cool while you prepare the watermelon. Then, in a large bowl, combine the cubed watermelon, lime juice and some of the cooled syrup to taste. Add a splash of rosewater and several handfuls of ice – about a cup per pound of melon is a good estimate, but more or less is fine too depending on how much liquid you want (and if the ice doesn’t create enough liquid you can supplement it before serving with some cold water). Set the bowl in the fridge for about an hour, stirring once or twice, or until the ice cubes have mostly melted. Taste again and adjust the balance of syrup, lime juice and rosewater to your liking, then serve immediately in bowls or wide tumblers, with spoons on the side.

The watermelon is best eaten the day it’s made, though 24 hours or so in the fridge won’t do it too much damage. The simple syrup keeps indefinitely at room temperature.