Prosciutto e Melone: A Garden Update

Don’t get excited. I am not eating prosciutto e melone. I’m not, and it’s a tragedy.

Fourteen years ago, I spent a month in Italy with a dear, similarly food obsessed friend. We ate our way from Roma to Venezia, with a detour to the ridiculously picturesque Cinque Terre. We worked on farms where they milked sheep and made Pecorino, we sucked fallen plums off the ground, we discovered fruits we had only ever seen dried and packaged, we discovered in fact, everything we had ever eaten before, and how it could taste.

People talk about Italy with an obnoxious nostalgia. I know. But there’s nothing else one can say. Food in Italy is obnoxiously good. Everything down to a can of tuna blew our minds. We ate at cafeterias with better food than most American restaurants.

Everything about Italian cooking threw me on my head. They hardly did anything. They love their food, that is well known, and so they take care with it. But what I hadn’t realized was just how ridiculously simple the preparation can be when you start ingredients that good. There were several epiphanal moments, but perhaps the one that has haunted me most is the proscuitto e melone.

We were working on a farm, picking and washing vegetables for market all day. Towards evening they fired up the outdoor wood oven to make pizza. I’m sorry, this is going to get absurd, but it actually happened this way. We sat at a big wooden table, outside by the oven, drinking wine from a local vineyard. The sun was setting over the rolling farmland with that light, the hazy orange stuff you see in old European paintings. The farmer’s father, a stately old Italian gentleman, came out to join us. He had brought a large platter of home cured prosciutto and fresh melon. It seemed such a strange thought to my Alaskan mind, meat and cantalope…? But holy christ was that some kind of food. The prosciutto meltingly, ethereally rich; the melon weepingly ripe, sweet but complex like wine. The unlikely combination surely a gift from god.

And I’m sorry to say this, but you simply cannot make this divine “recipe” in the United States. Because it all depends on the quality of two ingredients that you simply cannot get. I have never liked any of the prosciutto I’ve eaten here, it has a strange bitterness to it. And the melon. Is nothing like that melon.

I didn’t know melon (or tomatoes, or peaches) could taste like that. I had hoped moving down here, I would rediscover those flavors. Thinking it was heat and freshness that produced them.

Sadly, I’ve been vastly disappointed by the farmer’s market produce here. Tomatoes taste slightly better than the ones from the store. Peaches, ditto. Everyone here raves about the peaches. I’m sorry. They’re very good… They’re just not…… My mind is not blown.

Then it must be the varieties, I decided. They are just planting the standard grocery store varieties. Small, local, fresh, but still hybrid commercial varieties.

And so my little Alaskan soul ordered the heirloom seeds, combing the catalog for any hint that the resultant melon would taste like those luscious, complex Italian melons. I planted the seeds in little pots. I mostly remembered to water the pots. I transplanted them lovingly, two to my garden at home, two to my community garden. I hoped with my heart, but not too much. A judicious hope.

The plants at home made two melons. Both were riddled with bug holes and I had to pick them before they were fully ripe. They were edible.

In the community garden I had another two melons growing, seemingly escaping the bugs. One of them grew huge and today when I went to water, lo and behold it was ripe! It “slipped” from the vine when I picked it up! Oh copious joy! Oh heart of my heart! Oh prosciutto where are you?

I put the enormous melon into my bag with some little eggplants and yet another load of red marconi peppers. I hurried home. I ran inside for a knife. I drooled in anticipation.

You already know the end to this story, so what’s the point. I might cry if I have to spell it out. Let’s just say I am saving my money for a mid-life crisis trip to Italy.

10 thoughts on “Prosciutto e Melone: A Garden Update

  1. “Obnoxious nostalgia” describes it perfectly. I’ve been banging on about how the food tastes so different for the last 12 years. 12 years too long since I was last there.
    Everyone should have a midlife crisis trip to Italy booked.

  2. it’s the soil composition….at least, i know that is the big thing with grapes, and tomatoes. so i’d assume with other fruit as well.
    also, this is my first comment but i’ve been reading for months and enjoying your writing thoroughly. :)

  3. So, I just have to say, that my husband and I have noticed that there’s something about the setting that can be a vital component of appreciation of a food, like the scene you describe. It may be, that unless you have worked all day on a farm, with just the right tired/joy/community/happiness mix and someone hands you melon… it may just never taste like that again. Hubby and I went to dinner one night… one of the few evening dates we’d had in years due to small children (I KNOW you know all about that)… we had wine… it was WONDERFUL. We so fully enjoyed our dinner and wine that we bought a bottle from the restaurant (dumb). Anyway, we thought it was worthwhile… if we could share that bottle again. But, alas… it was not to be. The next bottle (opened at home on some special day that we didn’t have a babysitter)… was. not. the. same. Sigh. Some things are just in the moment… some fine serendipity that is ecstasy. And it really doesn’t have much to do with any one piece of the moment… it was the whole… greater than the sum of its parts.

    That said… I really hope you enjoy that trip to Italy, and I hope you find that melon. When you do… please bring us all seeds!

  4. I just have to say this

    “Thanks for showing us ya melons”

    Harharhar, I love saying that, and hope it carries the same humour there as it does in australia!

    1. i almost put some kind of melon innuendo caption on that revealing photo… i was definitely thinking it! dirty minds think alike.

  5. I am really looking forward to digging into your blog. Your perspective echoes my own and I thank you for making it public. Further, I am thrilled to check out your linked blogs and finally feel this community! Hooray!

  6. You are so right about food tasting better elsewhere! I spent a month in France and I couldn’t believe how wonderful everything tasted! Even the crusty bread and cheese we got on the 1 hr flight from Frankfurt to Geneva was some of the best I’ve had. It’s been 8 years and I still long for the flavors I tasted over there.

  7. Yes maam. I’ve a similar story, but French. Years ago, I found a love of mangos. Then moved to Paris for a Spring. French Mangos are imported from West Africa. Now even the Philippine mangos remind me of a Red Delicious apple, and the ripest Mexican mangos are a shadow of that.

    I agree with @betsy. The volcanic soil of Italy, the sunny but temperate Italian weather, all mixed with the care and love of food make their food taste better.

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