If I were blindfolded and handed a cherry tomato grown by local farmer Baptiste Bourdon, I’d swear it was candy. Eggplant from one of his neighbors, Jean-Claude Martin, has such tight, shiny skin it looks as if it will burst if handled too roughly. Big fat coeur de boeuf (beef heart) tomatoes with their almost paper-thin skin are so filled with late-summer sun they have to be handled like eggs. Gone are tiny, tender zucchini at this time of year; in their place come their fat cousins, good for soup, bread, tarts, and quiches. Squash is coming in thick and fast, and melons, the stars of the show, are finally honey-sweet. It’s late summer—some might say early fall—and produce doesn’t get better than it is right now.
Melons have been a long time coming. They are a fruit that can get me in trouble with my insistence on eating food grown as close to home as possible. Buying locally makes perfect sense for every reason—you support the men and women you greet at the market twice a week; food is so fresh and filled with flavor it makes anything grown farther away pale by comparison; you reduce the carbon imprint because the road between farm and market is short; you have the fun of putting your money right into the hands of the producer, and getting a smile, an inside tip, an extra little “bon poids” along with your purchase.
But you can also get a melon that doesn’t quite have the ripeness of its relative grown in the hot sun of southern France, particularly if you’re impatient. I love the French cantaloupe varieties of melon, and often cut the flesh into cubes and toss it in a shallot-rich vinaigrette, make a chilled soup or a simple amuse-bouche that everyone loves. My daughter thinks a half a small melon with a bit of yogurt and some homemade red currant jelly is just about the best dessert that exists. Naturally, the two of us are ready for melons around about mid-July, and some local farmers are ready for customers to buy them, too. They set out their small melons for sale, and I buy them. I cut into a melon that I’ve sniffed and weighed, and as good as it may have smelled I’ve let my impatience get the best of me. Rarely does it have the flavor I’m looking for.
This is no one’s fault. It’s simply a result of the Norman summer, which doesn’t truly get underway until the end of July. Then, the temperatures are—generally—steadily warm. That’s why early autumn is such a perfect time to eat almost all of the fruits and vegetables we usually think of as best in mid-summer. Come the end of August and the beginning of September we’ve got local peaches and apricots, plums that literally fall from the trees—both the sensuous reine-claude (greengage) and the nearly black Italian prune-plum varieties. And we’ve got our local melons.
It’s funny how the melon can be a matter of perspective. I was recently in Sweden and fell in love with the landscape, the friends I made there, the customs, the wonderful breakfasts of freshly baked rye crackers, thinly sliced cheese, fil or filmjölk—the thick Swedish buttermilk that accommodates freshly picked blueberries and wild strawberries—and the fried herring on crisp bread which is the Swedish equivalent of fast food. I loved the smell of juniper in the woods, diving into an inky black lake and coming up through iron-red water; watching the kids fish from the dock, running on the footpath around the lake, visiting loppis or garage sales where things were offered for a song.
But there was nary a melon to be had. Nor a truly ripe tomato, nor a fresh, crisp head of lettuce. We were out in the country, and the produce had been shipped from far-away climes—there were no farmers’ markets. It is so rare that I’m confronted with exclusively supermarket fare, and I found it dispiriting. I am so accustomed to a visceral thrill when I go to the market here in France, so much so that, while I survived and prospered in Sweden, on returning to France I nearly threw myself at the produce. I bought a Norman melon before I should have, and even though it might not have had the intensity I wanted, it tasted fantastic. Had I not gone north, I might have disdained it.
This experience made me realize, once again, that France is a land of milk and honey. And Normandy is right there at the top, when it comes to French regions, offering produce that sings with flavor and quality. We have a joke here, which refers to the way many Americans think that France is the two P’s—Paris and Provence. There’s nothing wrong with that—both places offer unparalleled everything. But for those who make the short drive from the first P—Paris—to Normandy, the rewards are as surprising as they are manifold. The climate offers a welcome softness, the landscape is lush and rolling, tapering off at the coast into a mixture of pebble and sandy beaches. The timbered homes, which often have thatched roofs held together at the peak with a row of deep purple iris planted right into the thatch, are gorgeous, especially set against the intense green of the pastures.
It’s beautiful, and its produce is filled with flavor—it just takes longer for it to develop than in warmer, drier regions. Here there are few worries about water, because regular (but not incessant) rains keep the barrels and the aquifers full. Flowers burst forth in uncommon abundance; raspberries, blackberries and strawberries are unbeatable. Lettuces offer the kind of taste that opens eyes in wonder, mushrooms populate the undergrowth of the many forests once owned by kings, and even garlic seems juicier, more softly pungent here than elsewhere.
While early autumn is often associated with the advent of root vegetables, here we’ll be held in the warm hand of summer for another several weeks. And while we revel in this late-summer larder, the next season’s bounty is growing fat and flavorful in the field. We’ll bask in perfect melons, juicy peaches, eggplant, tomatoes and strawberries as we bide our time.
The trailing, lazy days of September make each evening feel special. Tonight I’ll give in to the temptation to have a fête, and will serve friends a simple melon and lime parfait to begin our meal. I’ll follow it with a zucchini frittata perfumed with mint and basil, and thin lamb that’s cut from the ribs, seasoned with smoky paprika and garlic, and grilled for seconds over searing coals. These late-blooming flavors lengthen the tempo of summer, allowing us just a bit more time to relax before we launch ourselves back into the post-vacation season.
AMUSE-BOUCHE DE MELON AU CITRON VERT
I first sampled this delightfully refreshing little amuse-bouche at the restaurant L’Astrance in Paris. Deceptively simple to make, it has become a favorite at our house, where I serve it in small brandy snifters.
6 appetizer servings
1 medium Charentais, Cavaillon or cantaloupe melon, about 1 lb 12 oz (860g), rind and seeds removed.
½ cup (125ml) plain, full-fat yogurt
Zest from one half lime, minced
½ to 1 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
1. Using a melon ball scoop, make 18 melon balls. Put three melon balls on each of six attractive toothpicks or skewers. Place on a plate and refrigerate.
2. Cut remaining melon into chunks and purée in a food processor. Transfer to a non-reactive, airtight container and refrigerate for at least one hour.
3. In a small bowl, whisk together yogurt and lime zest and divide the mixture evenly among 6 glasses that will hold at least 3/4 cup (185ml) each, such as a wine glass or a small brandy snifter. Place glasses in refrigerator, covered loosely with a towel, to chill for at least 30 minutes.
4. Just before serving, remove glasses and melon from the refrigerator. Evenly divide the melon among the glasses, pouring it carefully atop the yogurt mixture. Drizzle each glass with a bit of the olive oil. Rest a toothpick of melon balls over each glass and serve.
Susan Herrmann Loomis teaches cooking classes in Normandy and Paris www.onruetatin.com.
Find her cookbooks in the Food & Wine sections of the France Today Bookstore.
Originally published in the September 2009 edition of France Today.