The Great Watermelon
For Linus Van Pelt, the most hotly awaited moment of the year is “the advent of the Great Watermelon”. This is a subtle modification: in the original cartoon, Linus actually awaits “the Great Pumpkin”, for Hallowe’en reasons. Until only a few years ago, Italians would have been at a loss: October 31st has typically been celebrated in other ways in Italy, and pumpkins have never really been at the heart of it for us.
The watermelon, however – that’s Italy’s hefty fruit of choice, and it goes by a plethora of names up and down the country. Anguria is common, but you also find it called melone d’acqua – literally, melon of water – and so the list goes on. I’m not convinced that the grammatically feminine cocomera is widespread beyond the confines of western Emilia-Romagna, specifically the Reggio Emilia area. What is certain is that, whatever its name, the fruit is an integral part of the landscape.
Not only does the watermelon enjoy wide cultivation, it also enjoys its own dedicated festivals, the most famous of which includes “Miss Anguria” in Novellara, Reggio Emilia. Besides all the food stands, stretching as far as the eye can see, the festival also includes a watermelon beauty contest, where weight is the winning quality.
They’ve more or less all disappeared now, but until a few years ago you could still find those little cabins that only served watermelon; indeed, they were part of the Reggio Emilian landscape. They would pop up in summer, standing where the chestnut roasters had stood in winter. They offered simple chairs and tables, and plastic plates brought you the juiciest, freshest slices of watermelon imaginable.
We would go out late in the evening, having waited for the ferocious heat of the day to cede to a slightly more manageable temperature. We would take a little stroll and come across one of these stalls – usually fashioned out of corrugated metal – and there we would sample and debate the quality of the watermelon on offer. Then as now, it was served with a sprinkle of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
The watermelon is a close relative of cucumber: their flesh share a similar taste and smell. In fact, if the watermelon has any taste at all, you know it’s a good one: its vast bulk is 90% water. No wonder that it seems to have originated from the Kalahari desert, where it was used as a water reserve.
Some see the watermelon as a godsend to those on punitive diets, and mistakenly believe that the volume of liquid inside it leaves you feeling thoroughly sated. But in fact, the watermelon contains just as much sugar as the next fruit. Eating a kilogram of watermelon is much like eating a kilogram of any other.
Recent years have seen a widespread reappraisal of the watermelon in gastronomy, especially in vegetarian cuisine, where it can stand in for every kind of carpaccio. It also plays an interesting role in mixology, with vodka and various other spirits in particular.
There are three arguments to avoid in conversation…religion, politics and the Great Watermelon
(Linus, Peanuts, 25 October 1961)