There are three things that cannot tolerate mediocrity, a French poet once wrote - verses, wine and melons. Claude Mermet, writing about 1600, seemed to feel that mediocrity was the rule:

"Friends are like Melons. Shall I tell you why?

To find one good, you must a hundred try."

Brillat-Savarin would have argued that this verse had already been outdated in his time by the improvement in melons that had made good ones the rule and bad ones the exception.

He admitted, however, that melons were a fruit that had to be eaten at the exact moment when they attained "the perfection which is their destiny." Melons, in fact, should not be picked until completely ripe. Some other fruits and vegetables will continue to ripen - that is, produce sugar - once picked and if kept in favorable, sunny conditions. But melons will not. Their sugar content begins to decrease as soon as they are separated from the vine. They may grow softer after picking, but not riper. Incidentally, despite the greater sweetness of a perfectly ripe melon, its sugar content accounts for only 5 percent of its weight - half as much as an apple or a pear. Since 94 percent is water, this still leaves the sugar with a 5-to-1 advantage over all the other taste-determining elements in the fruit.

Melons are the despair of gardeners and of taxonomists. They all belong to the species Cucumis melo and interbreed and overlap with reckless promiscuity. Melon seed growers must plant different varieties at least a quarter of a mile apart and preferably more, otherwise the insects that pollinate them will mix the different varieties together with such confusion that no one will be able to guess what sort of fruit is likely to result from the seeds. This also makes it difficult for taxonomists to classify melons into categories with any degree of fixity, but they have made a valiant effort to do so all the same. As a result, they have divided them into three main categories - the muskmelon, the cantaloupe and winter melons.

Winter melons come under the head of Cucumis melo variety inodorus , meaning odorless. These melons do, indeed, differ from cantaloupes and muskmelons by not exuding the aromatic smell that gave the latter its name. They also differ by not forming a separation shield in the stem near the fruit to cut off further nutrients from the plant when the optimum sugar content has been reached. Being late-season plants, they do need it. Unless their grower has picked them first, frost will take care of cutting off the nutrients.

There is great deal of variety among winter melons. The rind may be smooth, ridged or corrugated, the flesh whitish, light green or orange. They are popular with growers, especially those who ship to distant markets, because they will remain in good condition in storage longest (a month or more) and stand up best in transit. It is claimed in Armenia that Armenians first introduced melons into California. It may well be true. If so, it was the casaba melon, a winter variety named for Kasaba, Turkey. There is a definite record of the introduction of another winter melon into the United States - the French White Antibes Winter Melon (now known as the honeydew) was planted here about 1900.

One melon that has not yet been mentioned here is almost certainly not a winter melon. Given the instability of melons and the fact that it is too new to have acquired a scientific name so far, its category is dubious. It should probably be placed with the cantaloupes. This is the Ogen melon, named for the Israeli kibbutz that developed it. Small - about 6 inches across - with a bright yellow rind whose ribs are outlined in green, and with sweet green aromatic flesh, it appeared on the market in the 1960s and has proved a profitable item to export.

It was Gustave Flaubert who raised the question of whether the melon was a vegetable or a fruit. Its sweetness would cause most of use to class it with fruits, but Cucumis melo variety chito , the mango melon, (also called the vegetable orange or the vine peach) has white nonfragrant flesh that recalls cucumbers more than melons. It is used extensively for pickling. Variety flexuosus , the snake melon (long, slender, smooth and crooked), and variety dudain , the pomegranate melon or Queen Anne's pocket melon (small, round and fragrant), are both inedible but are sometimes grown in the United States as ornamental plants.

The flesh of the egusi melons of West Africa is not eaten. These melons are cultivated solely for their seeds which are slightly laxative and are roasted and eaten or pressed for their edible oil. They are not quite true melons because they belong to a different though related genus, the two chief varieties being Cucumeropsis edulis and Cucumeropsis manii.

The watermelon, despite its name, is not a genuine melon, either. IT is Cirtrullus vulgaris and proves its alien nature by refusing to crosspollinate with Cucumis.

Furthest of all from the real thing is the melon pear or melon shrub, alias the pepino. This is a native of Peru, now grown for its agreeable fruit in many other warm countries. It is Solanum muricatum , a relative of the tomato and potato.