A culinary delicacy that was once served alongside champagne and beluga caviar in upscale hotel restaurants, the Montreal market melon is probably the least known of Canada’s contributions to the world of food. At the beginning of the 20th century, this gourmet treat was much sought after. It sold for upwards of $1 a slice, about twice the price of a full-course meal at the time.
The Caviar of Cantaloupe
BuzzFeed has called the Montreal market melon “the caviar of cantaloupe,” and rightly so! You couldn’t get this rare and exotic fruit just anywhere: it was difficult to grow and didn’t stand up to transport over long distances. But in Montreal, Boston, and New York City, diners in the best restaurants could feast on a juicy slice of this green-fleshed melon if they were willing to pay the price.
The melons were grown by farmers on the slopes of Mount Royal and shipped to the United States daily. The seed was sold in America by a number of merchants, notably Atlee Burpee, who had discovered a specimen at the Ste Anne’s Market in 1880. But the Queen of Melons, as the variety came to be known, never did as well in New England as it did in the rich soil of its homeland. Perhaps it was due to the extreme care taken by farmers in Montreal’s Notre Dame de Grâce who grew the fruit. But maybe it’s a bit of a lesson to all gardeners about landraces: is local better, even when it comes to choosing seeds for our gardens?
Developing a Premium Market Melon
So what does this infamous melon look like, and where did it come from?
The Montreal market melon, also sometimes called the Montreal muskmelon or the Montreal nutmeg melon, is a cross between the green-fleshed nutmeg melon and European cantaloupes that were brought to the New World by French settlers in the 17th century. Nobody seems to know when exactly the first Montreal melons were grown, but they were definitely noticed when cantaloupes and muskmelons became a market crop at the end of the 19th century.
The Montreal melon is a green-fleshed, netted melon with a slightly spicy taste like nutmeg. Grown under the right conditions, it is enormous. Some sources say the melon grows to about 15 – 25 lb. At least one reference speaks of melons as big as 40 lb. Like its European ancestors, the melon is ribbed and has a grey-green skin that is netted like that of the salmon-fleshed cantaloupe most North Americans know and love.
Montreal melons were once the pride of the country. Back when they were first sold by Burpee Seeds, their catalogue described the fruits as “remarkably thick, light green, melting, and of a delicious flavor.” They called it the “handsomest possible melon,” and by 1883 were offering cash prizes to farmers who were able to produce the largest melons. Burpee referred to the fruit as the Montreal Green Nutmeg Melon.
Atlee Burpee wasn’t the only one singing the praises of the Montreal melon. A USDA farming bulletin published in 1909 called it a “melon of unusual excellence.” In his review of heirloom melon varieties, food historian William Woys Weaver says of the Montreal melon, “It became the most widely grown muskmelon in New England, Canada, and the Upper Midwest, not only because of its large size but because it yielded the best-flavored melons for short-season gardens.”
Near-Extinction of the Montreal Melon
Montreal’s market melon was once grown over acres and acres of farmland between Mount Royal and the St. Lawrence River. But over the years many of the farms were lost to urban expansion. Cars replaced horses, and all but one of the racetracks that once supplied manure for the heavy-feeding melon crops closed their doors. The Decarie Expressway now cuts through what used to be the farm of one noted melon-growing family; row upon row of duplexes line streets with names like Old Orchard Avenue, a faint memory of the farms that once dominated the landscape of Montreal’s N.D.G.
Green melons fell out of favour sometime after World War II, and the delicate skin of the Montreal market melon didn’t stand up to transport. As the melon was more suitable to family-based cultivation than to agribusiness, it just gradually stopped being grown. Even Burpee Seeds dropped the melon from its catalogue in the 1950s. At one point it was believed to be extinct: one of the many cultivars that were lost as the 20th century saw 75% of the world’s food crops simply drop out of existence. Biodiversity was losing ground to agribusiness and the pressures of global climate change.
A Lazarus Species
Luckily, a few seeds for the Montreal market melon were tucked away in a USDA seed repository in Ames, Iowa. In the late 1990s, they were given to scientist and farmer Ken Taylor, a man whom I had the pleasure to know all too briefly while I was at college in Ste. Anne de Bellevue in the 80s. The melons were grown at Windmill Point Farm, about an hour from the slopes where the cultivar originated. The seeds grew true to type, and Taylor was able to produce a stable strain that attracted attention from local and national media, as well as organizations such as Seeds of Diversity. At one point, the Montreal melon was even selected for the Slow Food Ark of Taste.
Once sufficient seeds had been saved, Taylor started spreading them around in an effort to preserve the rare genes. He worked on the crop for several years and even crossed it with other melons to produce a smaller variety that has the same taste as the original Montreal muskmelon. But the melon never enjoyed the same commercial success it had in the early 20th century. Taylor has since stopped growing it altogether, and now it’s hard to find a mention of it except as a historical curiosity.
But the melon is still regarded as a “Lazarus species,” one rescued from extinction and restored to life. It may not be available in your local supermarket, or even at your farmers market, but there is sufficient supply of the seed to ensure that heirloom gardeners will be able to grow the crop at home.
Growing the Montreal Market Melon in the 21st Century
Want to grow the caviar of cantaloupe in your heirloom garden? You can now purchase seeds for the Montreal market melon from a number of online seed catalogues across Canada. I haven’t been able to locate a supplier for the melon seeds in either the US or Europe, but please post a comment if you know of one! Montreal muskmelons need full sun and lots of pampering. But if you are up to the challenge of growing these historic beauties, in about 85-90 days you, too, can enjoy an exotic taste from the past. Remember, these are really huge fruits! Even though most growing them nowadays say they aren’t able to produce a melon on the same scale as those of days gone by, they are still growing to a weight of 5 lbs. As the melons don’t store well, it’s best to eat them soon after harvest. So be sure to share them around! Let your friends and neighbours get a taste of the fruit that came back from the dead.
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Original content © 2017 Kyla Matton Osborne, aka #RubyWriter
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