In Season

A Perfect Melon Awaits

(By Leigh Beisch -- Jupiterimages)
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By Stephanie Witt Sedgwick
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 3, 2008

When I want a good melon, I don't rely on pinching, poking or even a good shake. I know that melons are a lot like tomatoes: best fresh and local. So I go to reliable local sources and let them guide me.

It's an old-fashioned strategy that worked when I was a kid. Now the proliferation of farmers markets, stands and fresh-from-the-farm programs at supermarkets has brought it back for me.

That's why I didn't hesitate for a moment when I cut into the four-pound oval, yellow-tinged watermelon from my farm share last week.

Then again, everything's ready to eat when it comes from community-supported agriculture programs, or CSAs, in which members pay in advance for a weekly delivery or pickup of fresh produce from a local farm. Only fresh-picked, perfectly ripe produce has ended up in my bag since I joined this year. That's part of the agreement: the trust between the farmer and the customers who pay upfront in the winter to receive high-quality produce all summer and into the fall.

I had never bought a watermelon the shape or size of the one I was given, apparently a variety called Golden Crown. But it was a winner.

A few days later, at my local farmers market, I had my pick of watermelons, cantaloupes and more obscure varieties of muskmelons. I reached into the barrel and took a 'lope. Once home, I cut into its juicy orange flesh and found that it tasted as good as it looked and smelled.

In fact, I've seldom found underripe fruit at the Fairfax County farmers markets. Why would I?

"I don't need to pick until the fruit is ripe," says John Whitmore, owner of Farmer John's Wayside Fruit and Vegetable Market on Route 15, five miles north of Leesburg.

Unlike fruit producers who must pick hard, underripe specimens that can withstand the rigors of packing, shipping and distribution, "we only pick when the melon's ready, when it's ripe," he says.

Whitmore has a foolproof method for judging ripeness, one that is not available to the casual shopper. When a vine shuts down and the stems start to recede from the fruit, he knows his yield is ready. Whitmore picks the fruit, estimating that a typical melon will last for five to six days in the customer's refrigerator.

Buying direct from the farm isn't the only way to get good-quality melons. At many produce stands, the owner contracts with local farmers or visits the wholesale markets. Jim Means runs a fruit and vegetable stand in Frankfurt, Del., between Ocean View and Bethany Beach. He is proud of his produce judgment.

"I do all the buying myself and get only the best stuff," he says. Means says he can tell the good ones by their smell and color. For watermelons, he looks at the stem: Green indicates a melon has been picked too soon, while brown indicates ripeness.

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