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.