The Algerian Melon: An Heirloom Luxury from Ancient Times
Anyone who grows melons on a regular basis quickly learns the meaning of the word “polymorphic.” Melons are notorious for this, and the only good thing about it is that scientists have a name for the mysterious process: quickly changing. Due to their genetic makeup, melons are prone to reinventing themselves based on a number of kick-in factors: soil, climate, rainfall or the slightest stress on their “normal” growing pattern will inevitably result in a morph — hence the scientific term polymorphic (peppers and squash share the same characteristic). Depending on your point of view, morphs are either unwanted freaks or something new and wonderful worth preserving. This, in essence, is the history of the melon and how it came to evolve into so many different yet genetically related groups.
One of the oldest heirloom melons in the Baker Creek catalog is the black-green skinned Algerian melon (‘D’Alger’), or Melon d’Algier in French, which is a distinct type known in the Mediterranean since Roman times and depicted in mosaics of that period. The Roman and Byzantine images need vetting by botanists because they are, at times, somewhat vague, in that we only see the exterior color and shape of the melon, as opposed to a tell-tale slice.
On that note, the Baker Creek selection is only one of a large group of closely-related Algerian landraces that have evolved distinct features due to the rich biodiversity and careful local selection in their North African habitat. Some melon cognoscenti consider the Algerian melon bland when eaten ripe out of hand, but the problem with that judgment call is that there is more than one type of Algerian melon. Secondly, several of them belong to a special sub-group that were cooked (or at least poached or stir-fried) and, thus, used like zucchini in culinary applications. In short, they were not treated like fruit.
The Byzantine Greek term for this cooking technique is yiachni (from the ancient Greek word achnizo for steam). Chopped or sliced garlic, shallots, or onions are introduced, cooked gently in olive oil, in a pan tightly covered so that all ingredients retain their flavor. This is called “sweating” in modern terms; the ancient Greek Athenians invented it for the food served at their infamous all-night dinner parties. But back to melons …
Correctly speaking, under-ripe Melon d’Algier is ideal for this approach, so we may not be using it to its fullest culinary potential—then again, who thinks of melons as vegetables? The Byzantine Greeks cooked melons with caviar and all sorts of ingenious and thoroughly decadent ingredients; thus, on the vast estates that once defined North African agriculture before the fall of Byzantium, our Algerian melon found a home during the 500s (or perhaps earlier) as a useful transplant from Asia Minor. Its history can be validated through genetics but also through the rich pictorial material that survives in North Africa (especially Tunisia) in the form of mosaics and frescos depicting the daily life of the Roman and later Byzantine Greek “villa class” that represented the gentry of those once-rich agricultural provinces.
Melons were foods of the rich in ancient times: Roman, Byzantine Greek or otherwise. In part, this was due to the labor-intensive culture required to bring them to perfection and, not surprisingly, in many of the mosaics surviving from North African archaeological sites, we see servants or farmers bringing the best melon fruit to the Big House. This evokes yet another question: are there recipes? If these melons were cooked green or at least under-ripe, how was it done?
One ingredient we can count on is garos (Greek) or in Latin garum. This is the fish sauce we experience when we eat at Thai or Southeast Asian restaurants. Properly handled, it can give a vegetarian dish a mysterious meaty flavor, and indeed, a healthful dash of iodine (from the fermented fish or shellfish). But when we begin to add other Byzantine ingredients like spikenard (a floral spice similar to valerian), whale sperm and long pepper (a spice similar to nutmeg crossed with white pepper), our green melon cubed, diced or shredded, becomes a different vegetable altogether; flavors unfamiliar assume a new world of tastes. There is nothing wrong with this according to the Byzantine or medieval mindset because vegan cookery was supreme for medieval Christians during fasting, whether Greek Orthodox or Roman Catholic or the many other sects that held sway during the Middle Ages.
For a delicious dessert or side dish using this — or any other — melon, see: Melon Compote Recipe.
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