Those who love melon and other cucurbits would do anything to be able to recognise a perfect melon on a market stall. There are a few tricks to do it, but it is of primary importance to look for a typical product with an EU quality label, such as the Mantua melon PGI. This melon variety is protected by the PGI label (Protected Geographical Indication) which means that its production is delimited to an area in northern Italy. A vast area of Lombardy and Emilia, whose epicentre is in the 26 municipalities of Mantua province, has obtained the PGI quality label for the typical character of this product. In 2016, 4,000 tons of certified melons reached the market.
There is historical documentary evidence dating back to the 1400s, as well as written accounts in the archives of the Gonzaga family of Mantua, referring to “plots of land for growing the melons of these areas”. This confirms that even then the Mantua melon was highly popular in that particular part of Italy. Whether fact or legend, the death of Alfonso 1 d’Este – Duke of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio Emilia - was supposedly caused by melon indigestion, a fruit the “artillery duke” – as he was called - was particularly fond of.
How it is produced
The Mantua melon PGI belongs to the cucurbit family, like the pumpkin and the water melon. It is planted in the spring and harvested in summer and, if the hot weather holds, its season can even carry on into October. Melons require space and one fruit alone needs at least two square metres of land. It can either be grown in a greenhouse or in an open field. The weight of a fruit can vary from 800 grams to two kilos and its colour is green and yellow. Its average diameter is around 10 centimetres. Ripening must take place naturally without recourse to synthetic chemical products; harvesting is carried out manually every day.
This fruit falls into two main varieties, smooth-skinned or reticulated (net-like). The most common type, which represents 70% of those sold on the European market is the reticulated variety, which has a wrinkly skin, similar to a net – and goes by the name of Supermarket. The smooth-skinned melon, the Tamaris, is a prestigious variety highly favoured by chefs for its complex flavour and aroma. Its fragrance is similar to that of water melon flesh, reinforced by grassy notes of linden. The smooth-skinned yellow variety is more fragrant and emanates an aroma of mushroom. It also has a higher sugar content.
How to enjoy melon at its best
Contrary to the general belief held by consumers, it is useless to feel the “belly button” of the melon to test its ripeness, or to smell it to test its flavour. In the case of a reticulated melon, the only quality standard is that of weight: in proportion to its size, a very heavy melon is generally rich in sugar, so that of weighing the fruit is the only empirical way of assessing its quality.
If you are at the market and wish to amaze the owner of your favourite fruit stall, ask him to tell you the Brix index of his melons. Brix is a unit of measurement indicating the amount of sugar in fruit: 12° is the minimum level contemplated by Consortium regulations to obtain PGI denomination.
The Mantua melon PGI is very versatile in cooking, since it contrasts most effectively with savoury ingredients. It is widely used in summer salads, in fish tartare or puréed in desserts and fruit salads, in gelatine form and in all types of fruit smoothies. Melon is particularly rich in potassium and sodium. Chef Antonino Cannavacciuolo has used it in a most interesting fine dining pairing in one of his dishes: melon gazpacho, gorgonzola foam and prawns. Melon teams up perfectly with Port, the fortified wine from Portugal.