Melon Madness: French variety inspires passion

Cavaillon melons — which many consider the best melons in the world — are a hot item at fruit stands found along the roadsides in Provence in summer.


Chef Jean-Jacques Prévôt is mad about melons. He roasts, fries and sautés the juicy orange flesh. He makes a liqueur, soups, desserts, donuts and candy from melons. He even squeezes melon seeds to make a vinaigrette sauce.

Not just any melons, however. His passion is the famed Cavaillon melon named for the town in Provence, the melon capital of France, where Prévôt has a restaurant bearing his name and known for its melon specialties.

The jovial Prévôt has been cooking with melons since 1981.

He likens the two colors to an artist and a poet, and considers himself both, as, in addition to cooking, he writes, paints and sculpts.

A massive collection of melon items — including paintings using melon syrup — decorate the restaurant: melon salt and pepper shakers, corkscrews, ashtrays, dishes, clocks and more. Shelf after shelf is filled with melon treasures he has collected through the years.

Prévôt’s restaurant features a five-course melon menu with such treats as melon wrapped in pastry with lobster minestrone and roasted melon pearls with tender prawns in a vanilla and spice bouillon.

Cooking with melons, he says, is a challenge. “I’m always trying new combinations,” he says. “That’s what makes it interesting.”

Prévôt is not the only Cavaillon resident profiting from the town’s premier product. Numerous shops offer melon delicacies, from jams to candy, pastry treats to liqueurs.

These are no normal melons. They were introduced to the area in the 14th century by the popes, who lived in nearby Avignon. Back in Italy they enjoyed melons from Cantalupo, a small town where they had a summer residence and from whence the name cantaloupe originated. The popes had the precious melon seeds planted in Provence, where they grew and flourished in the strong summer sunshine.

The municipal archives of Cavaillon record that dignitaries who visited the town in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were presented with gifts of melons. In 1864, the Cavaillon library asked writer Alexander Dumas to donate some 400 volumes of his work to the town. He complied on one condition — that he be given a dozen melons every year. Until his death in 1870, the author received his supply.

Melons linked with the name Cavaillon are charentais melons, a European cantaloupe. What Americans call cantaloupes are muskmelons and not as sweet as the prized charentais.

Today Cavaillon basks in the glory of its elegant fruit, which is honored during a three-day melon festival every July. The town tourist office organizes melon discovery days with visits to nearby fields. The Knights of the Order of the Melon promote the precious produce. And the Syndicate of Master Melon Growers protects the name.

Cavaillon melons are not necessarily grown around the town. They can come from a vast area of Provence. However, to bear the sticker, “Melon de Cavaillon,” the melons must be tested and sorted at one of five recognized melon distributors near the town.

At these centers, sugar content is measured. An infrared machine checks out the interior for density. Workers carefully scrutinize the exteriors of each melon, rejecting those with imperfections. Only the crème de la crème carry the coveted label.

Last year, 2 million tons of these melons were distributed, primarily in France as there are not enough melons for export.

During the melon season, May through September, the syndicate conducts official tastings attended by local restaurant owners, melon growers and shop owners who sell melon products. Every two weeks these melon aficionados taste five different varieties of melons, rating them on appearance, aroma, sweetness, flavor and texture. The object is to determine whether new varieties measure up to standards. Currently there are 20 varieties.

Sylvain Meyssard cultivates about five acres of melons in fields just outside Cavaillon. The melon grower, who is continuing a tradition started by his grandfather, says that the growing process, from seed to fruit, takes 80 days. One plant can produce eight melons.

“You must know a melon very well to know when it's ripe,” he warns. “The last three days of maturity are very important. That’s when the sugar content increases.”

But, even if the melons are picked too early, they will continue to ripen after being picked and the taste will not be affected, he adds.

Back at his restaurant, Prévôt says he was introduced by chance to the melons that became his passion fruit.

In 1977, he was driving to Paris to visit his mother when his car broke down in Cavaillon. He called his mother to tell her of his misfortune. She told him to take advantage of the stop and buy some melons.

“The woman who sold me the melons became my wife,” Prévôt says. “I stayed in Cavaillon. My mother is still waiting for her melons.”

Photojournalist Leah Larkin, a member of the Society of American Travel Writers, lives in the north Luberon area of Provence, France. Contact her through www.leahlarkin.com.

Know and go ...

• Cavaillon melons are at their best in July and August. Melons have a high water content, which makes them low in calories. The deeper the orange of the flesh, the more carotenes the melon will contain.

• Trust your nose when selecting a melon — this applies to all melons, not just those called Cavaillon. A ripe melon should be fragrant. It should also be heavy. A slight crack at the stem end indicates ripeness. If part of the stem remains and is ready to break off easily, this also means the melon is ripe.

• This year’s melon festival in Cavaillon, with parades, contests and tastings, takes place July 6-8. Find more information on the fest as well as the city at www.cavaillon-luberon.com

• Prices at the restaurant Prévôt range from 19.50 euros for three courses to 70 euros for a five-course melon menu. For reservations, telephone (+33) (0) 490-71-32-43, or see its Web site, www.restaurant-prevot.com.

— Leah Larkin

Chef Jean-Jacques Prévôt likes the challenge of cooking with melons. “I’m always trying new combinations. That’s what makes it interesting,” he says. He operates a restaurant in Cavaillon, France, called Prévôt Restaurant.