Of monks and melons
The story goes that the tradition of serving Port wine in the hollowed-out cavity of a summer melon was first started by Spanish monks who would fill local piel de sapo melons, likely grown in the monastery garden, with equally local Port from the monastery cellar. The aperitif was likely enjoyed in the cool shade of the garden before the evening meal. Melons were considered a symbol of earthly delights by the monks. And how fitting that something with such a rough and arguably ugly exterior would yield one of earth’s most delicious treats. A geode of the garden – rocky on the outside, a treasure within.
The tradition quickly spread to France and Italy, and Melon au Porto is now a classic summertime dessert. It’s another one of the quick and easy dishes my grandmother would often make. (I know, there are a lot of those here on the blog!) If she was feeling fancy, she would hollow out the melon rinds and use them as serving dishes, but most of the time she would simply mix up the dressing in a pretty serving bowl and toss the fruit together as she was bringing it to the table. Of course for the kids she would make a non-alcoholic variation, melon au jus de raisin. Simply melon splashed with a bit of grape juice. Not nearly as exciting, but it felt fancy, served in a china bowl with a silver spoon, and I could always count on my grandfather to slip me a few of his port-soaked pieces when no one was looking.
I recently found an old recipe card tucked between the pages of one of the cookbooks from my grandmother’s collection. It’s a variation of the classic melon au porto with a French twist. On the card, it is written, “From the kitchen of Sophie” and if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that Sophie often makes an appearance in my kitchen, too, in spirit anyway. She was my great-grandmother born in Paris and immigrated to the United States shortly before the second World War, bringing with her a treasure trove of recipes and kitchen wisdom. This particular recipe caught my attention because, instead of using port, it calls for soaking the melon in Kina Lillet, the same spirit used to make James Bond’s famous Vesper martini. I don’t remember my grandmother ever preparing this dish with anything other than port, but perhaps that’s because Kina Lillet was unavailable in the US for several years, and when it came back on the market, the formulation had been substantially changed. It was no longer “Kina Lillet” but “Lillet Blanc.”
Colorado is known for several things – mountains, ski resorts, cowboys… and perhaps cantaloupe is not one of them, but it should be. Colorado grows one of the sweetest varieties of cantaloupe that I’ve ever tasted. I made this salad over the long Labor Day weekend using local cantaloupe from the town of Rocky Ford – a town built by cantaloupe, you could say, for as far as I know, that’s all they grow there. It’s just a little over an hour’s drive from our home.
Melon au Lillet Blanc
This is the recipe I found stashed away in that old book. I used Lillet Blanc in place of Kina Lillet, the rest remains unchanged. It’s a simple, classic recipe that makes a great appetizer or dessert. Any melon that’s in season and local to you can be substituted for the cantaloupe.
3 TBSP Lillet Blanc
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp grated lemon zest
1/4 tsp finely grated fresh ginger
Pinch of salt
1 sweet melon (Charentais, Cantaloupe, Canary melon, Honeydew or other local melon)
fresh mint leaves, torn, for garnish
In a large bowl, mix the Lillet, lemon juice, zest, ginger and salt. Set aside.
Wash the melon well. Cut in half and remove the seeds. Using a melon-baller, scoop out the flesh and place in the bowl with the dressing. Toss and refrigerate until ready to serve or up to 4 hours. Just before serving garnish with a few torn mint leaves.
Mom-brain: that state of constant triage in which we moms sometimes find ourselves, especially when our kids are sick or we are dealing with an emergency, stress or just the chaos of back-to-school. And it’s the state I’ve been in for the last three months.
If you follow me elsewhere then you know we’ve been going through a health crisis with my daughter, Eva. She is okay now, don’t fear. But when one of my kids is sick, I literally cannot think of anything else. It’s quite debilitating, honestly, and I often stand in awe of mom’s who can divide their consciousness among the needs of several kids, medical or otherwise, while still working full-time and appearing to glide through life with all the grace and elegance of Botticelli’s Madonna. I seem to fall apart at just the needs of two. When things are out of control, my “mom-brain” response is to stress-clean, and I might find myself polishing an antique table at 3:00 a.m., or vacuuming the crevices in the window sills and scrubbing the grout, or delving into some other micro-cleaning task as a way to make orderly the things which are within my control.
I’ve been a bit absent from this blog these days, and that is why. But we received some good news from the doctor this week and I’m excited to begin to find the brain-space needed to devote more time to Cerise Chérie. Perhaps taking it in an even more personal direction, with thoughts on motherhood and balancing the nuances of trying to raise children in a world that values quantity over quality, immediate gratification and superficial fluff over honesty, sophistication and true beauty … It’s like that meme you see on pinterest: “In a world full of Kardashians, be an Audrey.” The struggle is real! These are just of few of the thoughts that have drifted through my foggy mom-brain during those 3:00 a.m. polishing sessions. What do you think? Tell me in the comments below.