Sure, a melon may look like nature's answer to volleyball. But beneath its tough shell lies a surprisingly sensitive fruit, made up of thousands of fragile, balloonlike cells plumped to near bursting with fragrant juice. Melon flesh is 90 to 95 percent water, depending on the variety; a grape, by contrast, is a mere 82 percent. All that water is the reason a slice of chilled melon is so refreshing on a hot summer afternoon: Henry David Thoreau called watermelons "the most agreeable and refreshing wine in a convenient cask" and carried them with him on trips in his boat. But it also makes melons vulnerable to abuse.
When a melon is jostled in transit, its cell walls rupture and its texture turns mushy or spongy. So growers tend to harvest them early, when the flesh is still hard. But solving one problem just creates another, because a melon detached from its vine will soften (and eventually rot) but will not become one iota more flavorful than it was the moment it was picked. No wonder the melon we eat—at salad bars and Sunday brunches—is so often insipid, with just the faintest hint of the perfumed nectar and buttery texture that could have been its destiny.
Buying locally grown melons in season is one way to avoid disappointment, especially if you live in a warm climate; melons need lots of heat and sunshine to thrive. (See "Meet the Melons!" below, for some varieties and their seasons.) Buying organic matters, too. You might think a melon's thick skin would completely protect it from pesticides, but it doesn't. At its peak, a melon can gain weight faster than a mother-to-be, growing by 5 percent a day. Pesticides leach into the ground and are sucked up by the ravenously thirsty fruit.
It also pays to select melons wisely—but, evidently, most folks already know that. The produce aisle is filled with people engaged in furtive, mysterious acts: They tap, they sniff, they press gently on the blossom end (the one opposite the stem). They observe the color of a cantaloupe rind (it should be gold, not green), the hue of the pale patch on the underside of a watermelon (pale yellow, not white). They rub a honeydew's skin (it should be slightly sticky, from the sugar seeping through). They thump, and feel the vibration (quick, not sluggish). And really, who can blame them? They are hoping to circumvent the melon's hard, dull shell and communicate directly with the sweet and succulent flesh within.
Botanists divide melons into three categories: cantaloupes, muskmelons, and winter melons. What we know in America as the cantaloupe is actually a type of muskmelon and—go figure—not a botanical cantaloupe at all. And watermelons are a distant family relation. But flavor, not botany, rules at the grocery store. Here's a guide to some great-tasting melons.If you like American cantaloupe
Try Charentais, a true cantaloupe variety that is small (slightly bigger than a softball), with smooth, creamy skin and exceptionally fragrant, buttery flesh. Look for it at gourmet stores in June and July. Or try a Persian melon, a large, grayish-green muskmelon with a faintly netted rind and delectable, aromatic pale orange flesh; in season from July through October. If you like honeydew
Try Cavaillon, a melon from France that has smooth, pale skin and sweet, perfumy flesh. Orange-fleshed honeydews, like green ones, peak in early fall but are often good up until Christmastime. Or sample juicy, sweet casaba melons from late summer through late fall.If you like watermelon
Try, well, other watermelons. Dozens of new varieties have been developed in the past few decades; the best can often be found at farm stands. Good ones include Orangeglo, a supersweet and juicy orange-fleshed watermelon, and Moon and Stars, a popular heirloom. Watermelons are available from May through September; late summer is their peak.