Food History: Meet the Once-Famous Fruit that Survived Near Extinction

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.

 

Montreal melon: The caviar of cantaloupe
The Montreal melon was a delicacy on par with champagne and caviar

 

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?

 

Montreal market melon, from 19th century advertising card
Rendering of the melon, listed as the “new Montreal Nutmeg,” from an 1887 advertising card for Rice’s vegetable seeds
(Image: Boston Public Library/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

 

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.

 

Heirloom gardening: Montreal market melon, developed by crossing traditional French cantaloupes with spicy, green-fleshed nutmeg melons
The Montreal melon was developed by crossing traditional French cantaloupes like this Charentais melon with spicy, green nutmeg melons
If you enjoyed learning about the Montreal market melon, please feel free to use this image when you pin the article on Pinterest
Graphic made in Canva using a CC0 photo by Pixabay user Anybid

 

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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How to Wash and Prepare Leafy Greens

 

Salisbury steak was once a health food (Graphic made in Canva using my own photo)
Why Is This Frugal Recipe of Historical Interest?

 

 

Original content © 2017 Kyla Matton Osborne, aka #RubyWriter

This article was published on my food blog, 24 Carrot Diet. If you are reading this content anywhere else, it has probably been stolen. Please report it to me so I can address any copyright infringements. Thank you!

Featured Image: Collage created in Canva using CC0 photos from Pixabay users Isasza, seagul, and Robert Owen-Wahl

How to Bake a Yummy, Sweet War Cake

One day when my daughter asked me if we could make up a batch of poor man’s pudding, I discovered that I could no longer find my favourite recipe. So instead, I went looking for one on the internet. What I came up with was one that looked more or less right, but was subtitled “war cake.”

Figuring it was just another name for this frugal dish, I printed off the recipe and gave it to her to make. It turns out, though, I had stumbled upon a completely different and delicious dessert!

History of War Cakes

War cake dates back to the American civil war, and was popular on both sides of the Atlantic during the WWI and depression eras. The recipes is characterized by the absence of milk, butter and eggs – ingredients that would have been scarce during wartime.

Shortening replaces the butter that would be in most cake recipes, and you’ll notice that the only leavening is provided by the baking soda in hot water.

The hot water also replaces the milk and eggs for the purpose of providing moisture. If you find the cake dry, you can increase the moisture by placing a shallow pan of water on the bottom rack of your oven during baking.

How to Bake a Yummy, Sweet War Cake | #NoEgg #NoMilk #cake

No-egg, no-milk, no-butter cake – but still moist and delicious!
(Image from a photo by Celeste Lindell/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

 

Frugal Substitutions

You’ll notice that this recipe uses two cups of brown sugar, a more expensive ingredient even today. Many other war cakes have a smaller amount of sugar, and it certainly would be more frugal these days to replace the brown sugar with white.

The pound of raisins is also a bit of a splurge for families on a budget, as are the optional nuts. If you are trying to be frugal, do leave out the nuts. But the raisins (and the brown sugar) give this cake a good deal of its texture and flavour. Don’t skimp on them!

Remember that the recipe makes two loaves, and that it’s supposed to be a little bit of an extravagance when you are otherwise living a rather austere life.

WAR CAKE RECIPE

2 cups dark brown sugar
2 cups hot water
2 tbsp shortening
1 tsp each: cinnamon and nutmeg
1/2 tsp each ground cloves and ginger
1 lb raisins
1/2 lb chopped walnuts and/or almonds (optional)
3 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda dissolved in 1 tsp hot water

Directions:

In a saucepan, mix together the sugar, hot water, shortening, spices and raisins. Bring to a boil over medium heat and cook 5 minutes.

Set aside to cool for up to several hours, stirring often. The mixture will thicken up during the cooling period. Don’t rush and add the flour too soon, or the cake won’t bake properly.

Gradually mix in flour and soda. The batter should be thick. Pour into two well oiled and floured loaf pans.

Bake 45-60 minutes in a preheated 350°F oven, or until a toothpick inserted in the cake comes out clean. The resulting loaf should look like a darker, more dense version of banana bread.

Serve slices with a little butter at breakfast or tea time, or as a sweet finish to a hearty meal like stew or shepherd’s pie.

Why Is This Frugal Recipe of Historical Interest?

Salisbury steak is of interest to anyone following a low-carb diet – at least historically, if not as a regular part of the diet. Created by Dr. James Salisbury, the dish was originally intended as a cure for the terrible diarrhea soldiers suffered during the American Civil War. Salisbury believed we should limit carbohydrates and fats, and eat a diet composed mainly of meat. He recommended eating his creation, which he prescribed for treatment of tuberculosis, diabetes, goiter, and other conditions, three times a day!

Salisbury steak was essentially a cake or burger made from ground round, broiled slowly and seasoned with butter, salt and pepper. Salisbury also allowed for flavouring with Worcestershire sauce, mustard, horseradish, or lemon juice.

Most recipes today include onion and mushroom as essential components, though these were not in the original burger. Salisbury recommended a bit of celery instead, “used as a relish.” The celery in my recipe is a nod to the good doctor.

Salisbury Steak Recipe

Patties:

1-1/2 to 2 lb lean or extra lean ground beef

1 packet onion soup mix

1/2 cup bread crumbs

1 egg, beaten

1/4 cup milk

1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce

1-2 tbsp tomato paste

1/2 tsp dry mustard

flour for dredging (optional)

oil for browning

Mushroom Gravy:

1 cup beef broth

1 can sliced mushroom, with liquid

2 tsp dried minced onion

1-2 stalks celery, chopped (optional)

salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce to taste

Mix the ground beef with the onion soup and bread crumbs. Add the egg, milk, and seasonings. Form into patties. If desired, dredge each patty in flour before browning.

I like to make a double batch of both the patties and the gravy when I cook Salisbury steaks. We eat half right away, and I freeze the second half for later use. If you choose to do this, just brown the patties that you’ll be storing and cook partially only. This allows them to be reheated without becoming dry. Store burgers and gravy together or separately, either in labelled freezer bags or foil/glass baking pans.

When you want to use your freezer meal, defrost in the fridge over night. Heat through in a 350ºF oven for about 30 minutes, or cook on low for about 4 hours in a crockpot. Ground beef is safe to eat when the internal temperature reaches 160ºF.

This Salisbury steak recipe is quick and easy, and it’s a good way to stretch ground beef now that it’s gotten so expensive in some places. Add some steamed broccoli or lightly sauteed snap peas, or serve with a salad that contains some dark green, leafy vegetables in order to boost the vitamin content of the meal.

 

Featured Image Credit: Salisbury steak was once a health food by Hajime Nakano/Flickr; CC BY 2.0

Note: I originally published this recipe on Bubblews in April 2014