Tis the Season for Heirloom Charentais Cantaloupes
Use your nose, not your eyes, to select these enchanting Melons.
There are many Charentais varieties. Shooting Star sells a hybridized Charentais called Sivan, which has a netted skin.
Cantaloupes are still met with skepticism, even at farmers’ markets, perhaps due to years of eating insipid supermarket specimens. But at many market stalls, skepticism fades after a bite of Charentais melon, an heirloom cantaloupe.
“We grow them because they’re divine,” says JB Ingraham, who works the Happy Boy stall at Oakland’s Temescal market. And according to Shooting Star Farm’s Matthew McCue, it’s the best melon he has come across.
Charentais (pronounced “shar-ahn-tay”), traditionally grown in the Charente area of France, are a pronouncedly musky cantaloupe with sticky, syrupy juice and a heavy perfume. They are grapefruit-sized, with a pale bluish-green to creamy-yellow skin and dark green stripes moving longitudinally from stalk to blossom end.
“People sometimes look warily at them,” Ingraham said. “But it’s important not to judge them by the way they look.” The melon is notoriously delicate and bruises easily. Even though the melons are picked the night before the market, Happy Boy’s selection of flavorful pale melons can look faded and worn, cloaking their sweetness and fragrance from the average shopper—until they smell them.
“The best way to pick them is the nose,” Ingraham said. At their cut end, they give off a strong perfume when ripe, and their skin becomes a creamy yellow. When choosing, look for rough distressed markings on the skin—which often distinguish a sweeter-than-average melon. The melon will continue to ripen if left on the kitchen counter. Don’t put it in the fridge; that will change its texture.
Shooting Star grows a hybridized type of Charentais called the Sivan that makes choosing them even easier. The melons “slip”—come off easily—from the vine when ripe. These are best eaten as soon as possible after slipping.
Because they’re small melons, one can feed two as a snack or a simple dessert. At Chez Panisse, these halves may be dressed with a splash of Beaumes de Venise dessert wine inside their cavity, or some chefs prefer to add port or sherry. It’s also common to wrap these melons in prosciutto to be devoured as an appetizer. And at the Ramen Shop, pastry chef Emily Su turns them into popsicles.
Charentais melons can be found at Happy Boy, Tomatero, Riverdog, and Shooting Star farm stands from mid-summer through September amd even into October—as long as the warm weather holds.
Recipe from Emily Su of the Ramen Shop.
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups Charentais melon purée (see below)
Pinch of salt
1 cup vanilla ice cream (or half-and-half, whole milk yogurt, or whole-milk Greek yogurt)
Optional additions: Beaumes de Venise, 2 leaves of chopped mint, blueberries
Make simple syrup: Combine the water and sugar in a small saucepan and simmer until the sugar has dissolved. Allow it to cool completely.
Purée the melon: Seed and peel the melon and cut it into cubes. Purée the cubes in a blender with a pinch of salt. Sometimes it helps to add half of the simple syrup to get it going.
Place the purée in a bowl with the ice cream or half-and-half, along with any additions, and mix it well together with a wooden spoon. You want the ice cream to be completely melted into the mixture. Adjust sweetness with more simple syrup or more water, depending on whether using ice cream or half-and-half.
Pour into your favorite popsicle molds, ice-cube trays, or paper cups, and freeze until firm.