Melon Mania lets the good times roll

Scott Paris, frankly, was bored with tomatoes. He craved something different, something sweet, something big.

His Maple Rock Gardens and High Hand Nursery had held successful tomato tributes. “But everybody does tomatoes,” he said.

So Paris suggested to his small staff that they convert their annual tomato fest into a salute to another heirloom crop.

And Melon Mania was born.

“I was burnt out on tomatoes,” Paris said, “and Sweet 100 always won the taste contest. Melons have to be more fun – and surprising.”

This Saturday, visitors to Maple Rock Gardens in Penryn will get to taste more than 40 varieties of melons. That group includes about a dozen different watermelons, but only one will be seedless. In addition, there will be many exotic melons such as the aptly named Banana melon or the Thai Golden Ball with green flesh and flavor like a ripe tomato.

“I particularly like the Ogen melon,” Paris said. “The taste is mild, but it’s so fragrant; real fruity, tropical, with an almost gardenialike scent. When that thing is in a room, you know it.”

Thousands of melons now dot 5 acres of Maple Rock, awaiting the mania to begin.

“You don’t know how much stress there is trying to hit a specific date with something perishable and of nature,” Paris said. “We started succession-planting in late April. We kept planting more because they had to be ripe and ready on Aug. 23, and we didn’t know for sure the timing.”

That timing appears to be just right. That’s not an easy feat considering the on-going drought and unpredictable weather.

Farmer Jakob Stevens serves as Paris’ right-hand man at Maple Rock. Stevens chose dozens of heirloom varieties – each one lauded in previous taste tests – and planted 50 each in big blocks, with all plants on drip lines. More than 2,000 plants now cover 5 acres with miles of twisting vines.

For weeks, Paris kept asking Stevens if the melons would be ready on time. In early August, Stevens finally said, “We’re good.”

Said Paris, “I know now we’ll have tons and tons of melons.”

“People have no idea how many different melons there are,” Stevens said. “There are more than 3,000 varieties just of watermelon.”

These are not your typical supermarket melons. With knife in hand, Stevens gave a tour of his massive melon patch.

Cut open these watermelons, and the difference from their supermarket counterparts is immediately apparent. They have seeds. Some aren’t even red inside but dramatic neon orange (such as Orangeglo), pale yellow (Daisy) or snow white (Cream of Saskatchewan).

“Orangeglo has won taste contests before,” Stevens said. “They’re so juicy, and the color is just stunning.”

More important, they have rich aroma and lots of flavor.

Said Stevens, “I planted only one seedless watermelon – Millionaire – for people who really can’t deal with seeds. But otherwise, you can’t beat seeded melons for flavor.”

They also tend to be very big. An old-time favorite that dates back more than 180 years, the Georgia Rattlesnake heirloom watermelon averages about 40 pounds.

“And these Rattlesnakes definitely don’t taste like chicken,” Paris said.

Consumer demand for seedless, smaller watermelons that easily fit into a refrigerator drawer made such heirloom giants rarities in supermarkets. Many people in the greater Sacramento area have never tasted melons like these, Paris said, or seen them grow in such abundance.

“In the supermarket, you tend to get those cookie-cutter melons that all look alike,” Paris said. “With these heirlooms, there are layers of flavors we’re not used to.”

Said Stevens, “They’re all vine-ripened, so they’ll automatically taste better.”

For the most part, the heirloom watermelons look pretty much like other watermelons with some exceptions. Moon and Stars, an heirloom that’s close to 100 years old, boasts a dark green rind speckled with bright yellow “stars” and a few half dollar-size “moons.” Stevens grew both red-fleshed and yellow-fleshed Moon and Stars, his personal favorite.

“What’s interesting is the foliage has yellow spots, too,” Stevens said. “They both taste great.”

Kolb’s Gem is the giant in the field and needs more than one person to pick it. This watermelon easily reaches more than 120 pounds. Another standout is Charleston Gray, mere 30-pounders but with light green-gray skin.

While the watermelons will keep in the field for several days, the soft rind melons – cantaloupes, muskmelons and other varieties – are much more perishable and time-consuming.

Stevens has become familiar with their individual quirks as he closely monitors their ripeness. For example, Prescott Fond Blanc “looks like a little pumpkin, but it’s actually like a French cantaloupe; really fun and sweet,” he said. “The Banana melon has this pretty spicy salmon flesh with a hint of banana; very tropical and very good.”

Round and small like a cannon ball, the orange-striped Tigger melon actually tastes more like an unripe banana, he noted. “It really has a wonderful fragrance, too.”

Stevens reached down into the vines and pulled out a bright yellow, wrinkled casaba.

“With the soft-skinned melons, you can tell if they’re ripe if you gently lift it,” Stevens said as he demonstrated. “If it slips off the vine, it’s ripe. If it holds on strong, leave it a little longer.”

What doesn’t get consumed at Melon Mania will go to the High Hand Nursery’s fruit stand in Loomis. Many of the melons will end up in meals served at High Hand’s sister restaurant.

Stevens also likes to sample them in the field, fresh off the vine.

“This is the culmination of some childhood wish,” he said as he finished off a green slice of Thai Golden Ball. “I wanted to taste every fruit there was. This is one step towards that goal; I’ve got the melons covered.”