The Montreal melon is fairly unknown today, even in Montreal. But once it was a popular culinary delicacy. Upscale hotel restaurants served the melon alongside champagne and beluga caviar. At the beginning of the 20th century, Montreal market melon sold for upwards of $1 a slice. At the time, that was about twice the price of a full-course meal.
Loss of Crop Diversity in the 20th Century
How does a fruit as sought after as the Montreal market melon end up in obscurity? Actually, there are many foods that have gone this way. Did you know that the world has lost 75% of all our food crops in the last 50 years?
This mass extinction of food crops is the result of changes in human society. Urbanization, globalization, even scientists trying to fight world hunger, have all contributed to the loss. In today’s food market, uniformity, familiarity and appearance take precedence. Shelf life, cost, and ease of transport are major considerations. Variety, and even flavour, take a back seat to these other factors.
The result is more farmers planting the same variety of a given crop. For example, since restaurants like McDonald’s have long favoured russet Burbank potatoes for making French fries, more farmers grow this type of potato. But what about the rest of the 200 or so varieties of North American potatoes? If most farmers want to grow the crops that are in high demand, they are going to be leaving a lot of other varieties by the wayside.
That’s pretty much what happened to the Montreal melon. People were once willing to pay a high price for the precious fruit because they couldn’t grow the melon. But eventually, the market shifted towards a single kind of muskmelon. The orange-fleshed cantaloupe became the standard, and farmers eventually stopped growing Montreal’s market melon altogether.
The Caviar of Cantaloupe
BuzzFeed has called the Montreal market melon “the caviar of cantaloupe,” and rightly so! You couldn’t get this rare and exotic fruit just anywhere: it was difficult to grow and didn’t stand up to transport over long distances. But in Montreal, Boston, and New York City, diners in the best restaurants could feast on a juicy slice of this green-fleshed melon if they were willing to pay the price.
Farmers grew the melons on the slopes of Mount Royal and shipped them to the United States daily. A number of American merchants sold the seed. Most notable among them was Atlee Burpee, who had discovered a specimen at the Ste Anne’s Market in 1880.
Montreal Melons Didn’t Grow Well in the US
But the Queen of Melons, as some people called the Montreal melon, never did as well in New England as it did in the rich soil of its homeland. Maybe the farmers in Montreal’s Notre Dame de Grâce put more care into growing their melons. After all, each family had their own strain of the Montreal melon. They took pride in growing the biggest, juiciest, and tastiest melons. And boy, did they pamper their crops!
But maybe it’s a bit of a lesson to all gardeners about landraces. Local may just be better, even when it comes to choosing the seeds for our gardens. Not every plant will do well in a given place – even when there’s no obvious reason it shouldn’t.
Developing a Premium Market Melon
So what does this infamous Montreal melon look like, and where did it come from?
The Montreal market melon is also sometimes called the Montreal muskmelon or the Montreal nutmeg melon. It’s a cross between the green-fleshed nutmeg melon and European cantaloupes. The seeds for these European melons came to the New World with settlers from France in the 17th century. Nobody seems to know when exactly the first Montreal melons appeared. We do know they were around by the end of the 19th century, when cantaloupes and muskmelons became a market crop.
The Montreal melon is a green-fleshed, netted melon with a slightly spicy taste like nutmeg. Grown under the right conditions, it is enormous. Some sources say the melon grows to about 15 – 25 lb. At least one reference speaks of melons as big as 40 lb. Like its European ancestors, the melon has noticeable ribs. Its grey-green skin is also netted, like the salmon-fleshed cantaloupe most North Americans know and love.
Montreal melons were once the pride of the country. The Burpee Seeds catalogue once described the fruits as “remarkably thick, light green, melting, and of a delicious flavor.” They called it the “handsomest possible melon,” and by 1883 were offering cash prizes to farmers who were able to produce the largest melons. Burpee listed the fruit as the “Montreal Green Nutmeg Melon.”
Atlee Burpee wasn’t the only one singing the praises of the Montreal melon. A USDA farming bulletin published in 1909 called it a “melon of unusual excellence.” In his review of heirloom melon varieties, food historian William Woys Weaver says of the Montreal melon, “It became the most widely grown muskmelon in New England, Canada, and the Upper Midwest, not only because of its large size but because it yielded the best-flavored melons for short-season gardens.”
Near-Extinction of the Montreal Melon
Montreal’s market melon was once grown over acres and acres of farmland between Mount Royal and the St. Lawrence River. But over the years, urban expansion ate away at the farmland in Montreal.
Cars replaced horses, and all but one of the racetracks that once supplied manure for the heavy-feeding melon crops closed their doors. The Decarie Expressway now cuts through what used to be the farm of one noted melon-growing family. Row upon row of duplexes line streets with names like Old Orchard Avenue, a faint memory of the farms that once dominated the landscape of Montreal’s N.D.G.
Green melons fell out of favour sometime after World War II, and the delicate skin of the Montreal market melon didn’t stand up to transport. Agribusiness favoured crops that were easier to grow and transport. As time went on, only home gardeners were growing Montreal’s market melon.
Even Burpee Seeds dropped the Montreal melon from its catalogue in the 1950s. At one point, the melon was believed to be extinct. Biodiversity was losing ground to agribusiness and the pressures of global climate change.
A Lazarus Species
Luckily, a few seeds for the Montreal market melon were tucked away in a USDA seed repository in Ames, Iowa. In the late 1990s, they were given to scientist and farmer Ken Taylor, a man whom I had the pleasure to know all too briefly while I was at college in Ste. Anne de Bellevue in the 80s. The melons were grown at Windmill Point Farm, about an hour from the slopes where the cultivar originated. The seeds grew true to type, and Taylor was able to produce a stable strain that attracted attention from local and national media, as well as organizations such as Seeds of Diversity. At one point, the Slow Food Foundation selected the Montreal melon for its Ark of Taste.
Once he had saved sufficient seeds, Taylor started spreading them around in an effort to preserve the rare genes. He worked on the crop for several years and even crossed it with other melons to produce a smaller variety that has the same taste as the original Montreal muskmelon. But the melon never enjoyed the same commercial success it had in the early 20th century. Taylor has since stopped growing it altogether, and now it’s hard to find a mention of it except as a historical curiosity.
But the melon is still regarded as a “Lazarus species,” one rescued from extinction and restored to life. It may not be available in your local supermarket, or even at your farmers market, but there is sufficient supply of the seed to ensure that heirloom gardeners will be able to grow the crop at home.
Growing the Montreal Melon in the 21st Century
Want to grow the caviar of cantaloupe in your heirloom garden? You can now purchase seeds for the Montreal market melon from a number of online seed catalogues across Canada. I haven’t been able to locate a supplier for the melon seeds in either the US or Europe, but please post a comment if you know of one!
Montreal muskmelons need full sun and lots of pampering. But if you are up to the challenge of growing these historic beauties, in about 85-90 days you, too, can enjoy an exotic taste from the past. Remember, these are really huge fruits! Even though most growing them nowadays say they aren’t able to produce a melon on the same scale as those of days gone by, they are still growing to a weight of 5 lbs. As the melons don’t store well, it’s best to eat them soon after harvest. So be sure to share them around! Let your friends and neighbours get a taste of the fruit that came back from the dead.
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Original content © 2017 Kyla Matton Osborne, aka #RubyWriter
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Featured Image: Collage created in Canva using CC0 photos from Pixabay users Isasza, seagul, and Robert Owen-Wahl