I finally took one of my ‘Winter King and Queen’ watermelons out of its trash can full of brine and sliced it open. What a revelation! This pickled watermelon wasn’t slimy and tomato-like, like the brined watermelon I had in New York so many years ago. It wasn’t a translucent red like the ‘Golden Midget’ melons I brined in 2010. The flesh still looked more or less as it would have before brining, and it was mostly still crisp. It was lightly sweet, sour, and salty all at once. It was, in sum, delicious, and now I understand why many old-timey Germans from Russia prefer the ‘Winter King and Queen’ over other watermelons for brining.
Robert immediately found uses for the brined melon. He cut it into cubes and combined it in a salad with sliced celery and scallions and unrefined sunflower oil. This salad was so good that I had to duplicate it the following evening. He made a cocktail of homemade slivovitz (plum brandy) with cubed brined watermelon. He ate the flesh by spoonfuls right down to the green outer rind. And we both drank the refreshing brine that the cut melon released while sitting in the fridge.
We will eat the other melons soon, while they’re still crisp. And when they are gone we will miss them. Thank goodness we’re only two months away from watermelon-planting time.
I was pleased to find outside the front door yesterday a package from Gwen Schock Cowherd, my cherished advisor on all foods German-from-Russia. Gwen had sent a jar of her prize-winning unfermented watermelon pickles, made in the tradition of Midwestern prairie dwellers whose German ancestors once lived beside the Black Sea in Russia.
Gwen’s fresh-pickled watermelon tastes much likemine, but with a strong, fresh dilliness and a striking, appealing saltiness. I especially like the bit of crunch provided by the sliver of white rind showing on one edge of each watermelon piece. And notice how pretty Gwen’s pickle jar looks, with the dill heads and the sliced green pepper.
Gwen kindly sent me her recipe to share with you:
Gwen’s Watermelon Pickles
BRINE: 12 cups water 2½ cups sugar 2½ cups white vinegar ¾ cup salt 1 ounce Schilling pickling spice mix
Bring all ingredients to a boil. Simmer for a couple of hours, covered. Stir occasionally to distribute the flavor of the spices.
1 large seedless watermelon, any variety (better underripe than overripe) 2 small heads fresh dill per jar 1 slivered garlic cove per jar 1 small dried red pepper per jar (optional) 1 or 2 thin green pepper slices per jar
Peel the watermelon, leaving a thin amount of white rind. Cut the watermelon into 1-by-1/2-inch chunks. Try to leave some white rind on each chunk; this will help to keep it from disintegrating. Drain the chunks in colanders for several hours—overnight is best.
Pour off the watermelon juice. If you want to use the juice in your brine, that is OK.
Into each sterilized quart jar, put a dill head, and add watermelon to fill half the jar. Shake the jar so the pieces settle. Then add one small dried red pepper (if you like your pickles hot) and half the garlic slivers. Distribute the garlic among the watermelon chunks. Add more watermelon chunks, again shaking the jar so they settle. Add the strip(s) of green pepper and the rest of the garlic slivers, distributing them in the jar. Put another dill head at the top of the jar.
Pour the brine, boiling and strained, into the jars. (Save the extra brine for another batch. It will keep in the refrigerator indefinitely.) Add lids and rings, and put the jars in a hot water bath. Bring the water to a boil, and boil it for 5 minutes, no longer.
Remove the jars from the bath and let them cool undisturbed for several hours. Check to see that they are sealed. Store them in a cool place.
Makes 7 quarts
Gwen says her pickles improve with age. As you can see in the picture, the ones she sent me were made in 2012. Keep in mind, though, that she stores her sealed jars in an especially cool place: a refrigerator reserved just for pickles.
As the fermentation fad spreads, some people are saying that pickles aren’t true pickles unless the solids as well as the liquid components have been fermented. Gwen’s unfermented watermelon pickles, and my slightly sweeter ones, are very different from brine-pickled watermelon, and if you try all three recipes you may well prefer one over another. But I can’t predict which you’ll like best. All of them are real pickles, and all of them are really good.
I first learned about watermelon’s pale-fleshed, seedy ancestor while studying traditional ways of preserving modern watermelon. Why, I wondered, do people bother to make the watermelon’s narrow inner white rind into pickles and sweet preserves when the red flesh and the seeds have much more nutritional value and flavor? Was the white layer proportionally bigger in watermelons of the past? And what is a pie melon? Did Southerners actually make pies out of a sort of watermelon?
Soon I was reading about the citron melon, the native African watermelon from which our garden varieties were developed. Citron melons grow wild in many hot places today, including the southern United States. Green Deane describes them growing in Florida citrus groves, though the melon wasn’t named for this preferred habitat.* Wild citron melons are said to be usually bland-tasting, but sometimes they’re sweet or bitter. Cultivated varieties are always bland. “Pie melons” can be citron melons or crosses between citron melons and sweet watermelons.
That much I learned from other writers, but I wanted to experience this fruit for myself. So when, in 2011, I found a listing for red-seeded citron melon in the Seed Savers Exchange catalog, I had to send for some seeds.
I couldn’t grow melons of any sort in the cool, short summer of 2011, but in 2012 I did better. My single citron melon vine produced several round fruits, each no more than 7 inches in diameter and striped dark green on a pale green background. I picked the melons at the first frost of the year, in early October, and hoped that they would keep well on the cool tile floor of our entry hall while I spent the next several weeks canning and drying tomatoes, peppers, apples, and pears. Later I would try making some citron melon preserves, which are just like watermelon rind preserves except that you use all of the melon apart from the hard outer rind and the seeds.
In early November one of my readers, Val, suggested that I have a look at a blog post by a writer in southern France concerning “jamming melons,” or melons d’Espagne. In Médoc, writes Mimi Thorisson, everybody makes confiture with these melons just after harvest, in early November. She suggests two variations on the basic confiture, one with vanilla and one with mandarin orange and ginger. Her recipe, I noticed, closely resembles American recipes for citron melon preserves. In her photos, the melons d’Espagne look just like my citron melons.
I consulted other French sources. Some French writers say the melons are harvested in late fall and kept in a cool place until just after Christmas, when they are made into the last preserves of the year. All the French recipes I found are much like both Mimi’s and the American recipes. If melons d’Espagne and red-seeded citron melon aren’t exactly the same variety, they must be very close.
I cut into one of the melons. Inside, it fit the French descriptions. The flesh was pale green and bland tasting. It felt slimy, like aloe. The red seeds were many, large, and hard in comparison with seeds of the sweet watermelon cultivars I know.
I worked out a recipe to suit myself. I didn’t add an apple or chop the melon in a food processor, as one French recipe specifies. This would give a jammy result, and I wanted to make preserves, that is, bite-size pieces of fruit in heavy syrup. I didn’t use the alum called for in some Southern recipes, to give the melon a brittle (and, to me, odd) texture. Instead of choosing either vanilla or orange, as Mimi suggests, I combined the two, as in other recipes.
I used half of a vanilla bean, and the flavor was overwhelming. So in the recipe that follows I call for only a quarter of a bean and offer the option of using ginger instead, as I’ll do next time. If you prefer vanilla to ginger, you might also follow another French tradition: Add a splash of dark rum at the end of cooking.
Citron Melon Preserves
For this recipe you’ll need a melon about 6 inches in diameter or else a piece of a larger melon. Cut the melon in half, and cut each half into narrow wedges. Poke or pry out all of the seeds. Peel each wedge with a knife, and then cut the wedge into ½- to ¾-inch pieces.
3 pounds prepared citron melon pieces 2 clementines 3 tablespoons lemon juice 3 cups sugar ¼ vanilla bean, split lengthwise and slivered crosswise, or 1 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled, sliced thin, and slivered
Put the melon pieces into a preserving pan. Halve the clementines, squeeze out their juice, and add the clementine juice and the lemon juice to the pan. Scrape out any membranes and stringy white bits from the clementine peels, slice the peels into thin strips, and add them to the pan. Add the sugar and the vanilla bean or ginger pieces. Stir gently, cover the pan, and let the mixture rest overnight.
Set the pan over medium heat, and stir gently until the sugar is dissolved. Raise the heat to medium-high, and boil the mixture, uncovered, for about 40 minutes, stirring only occasionally and gently. When the preserves are ready, there will appear to be more fruit than liquid in the pan. The fruit will be partially translucent, and the syrup will form a thread when dropped into a glass of cold water.
Remove the pan from the heat. Ladle the preserves into sterilized half-pint mason jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Add lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 5 minutes.
Note that the syrup will probably jell, but slowly, over a period of days.
Serve the preserves on toast, biscuits, pancakes, or ice cream.
Makes about 4 half-pints
*Nor does the melon taste like citron; it isn’t tart at all. Instead, its English name derives from its generic name, Citrullus, which was first applied to its cousin colocynth, or Citrullus colocynthis, a plant that loves very dry as well as hot conditions. Ripe colocynth fruits on the vine look like oranges scattered about on the ground, as if somebody’s shopping bag had ripped in the middle of the desert. Citrullus colocynthis was once a highly valued medicine, traded throughout the Old World for its purgative effect, despite its horribly bitter taste.
I didn’t invent watermelon molasses, Sara Bir informed me. At least I wasn’t the first to invent it.
I’d cooked twenty pounds of watermelon into a cup of syrup because I and the rest of the family were tired of eating watermelon and the melon was overripe anyway. Besides, I’d had grape molasses (arrope, mostillo, mostarda, saba, pekmez) on my mind. I’d been thinking about life before cheap cane sugar, especially in Europe. Honey was a cherished sweetener then, but it wasn’t always available, at least not at a price that many people could afford. Before the word molasses and its cognates referred to cane syrup, they were applied to honey-like fruit or vegetable syrups. Molasses derives from the Latin word for “must”—grape juice—and the word for “must” comes from the Latin word for “honey.” The oldest reference to molasses in the Oxford English Dictionary, from 1582, defines it as “a certeine kinde of Sugar made of Palmes or Date trees”; the second, from 1588, calls it “Sirrope of sugar, beanes [etc.].” When you had more fruit—even beans!—than you could eat, you might preserve its essence by boiling down the juice.
Fruit molasses hasn’t gone entirely out of style. Grape molasses, fig molasses, and pomegranate molasses are still imported to the United States from the Mediterranean region and sold at high prices in specialty stores. These products provide a mellow sweetening in sauces, dressings, and desserts, and grape molasses is the sweetener in cheaper kinds of balsamic vinegar.
Why not make molasses from watermelon? I’d decided to try it. The result, as I described in The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves, was remarkably like grape molasses. With so much boiling, fruit juice darkens and loses its volatile flavors. In the finished syrup, you taste mostly sweetness and minerals.
When Sara came upon my recipe for watermelon molasses, she’d already made a version herself—an experience she describes in entertaining detail in Metroactive. Sara had come upon a little cookbook, Our Favorite Recipes, compiled by the Friendly Aid Society of Free Evangelical Lutheran Cross Church of Fresno, California, and published in 1979. In the book were some distinctly American dishes, such as Jello salads, but there were also foods with exotic-sounding names, like grebbles and berrocks. What interested Sara most were the three coffeecake recipes calling for watermelon molasses, and the recipe for watermelon molasses itself.
Sara wrote me to ask what I knew about watermelon molasses. I didn’t know much; I certainly didn’t know it was a popular ingredient in the kitchens of Fresno Lutherans. I wondered where these people had come from. I pondered the word berrocks, which didn’t sound as if it had ever been German.
On the Web, I found numerous recipes for bierocks—yeast buns stuffed with ground beef and cabbage—and at least one was attributed to the Volga Germans. These were people from southwest Germany, mostly, who at the invitation of Catherine the Great in 1763 settled along the Volga River in Russia, where they were allowed to maintain their language, culture, and various religious traditions (Lutheran, Catholic, Reformed, and Mennonite; Jews weren’t welcome). Although the Volga Germans kept mainly to themselves, they must have learned a few things from the locals. Their bierocks or berrocks—the accent is on the second syllable—were pirogi.
A century after the Germans began migrating to Russia, they lost some of their special privileges, including exemption from military service. When other countries beckoned new settlers, whole Volga villages moved themselves to North and South America. In 1886 and 1887, I discovered, Evangelical Lutherans from several villages on the eastern side of the Volga, near Saratov, settled in Fresno County.
Fresno is a good place to grow watermelons. So is the Lower Volga, a Russian culinary dictionary assured me. Watermelons grow so abundantly from Kamyshin to Astrakhan, on the Caspian Sea, that until recently much of the crop was either brined or boiled into nardek—watermelon molasses! Modern transport allows the shipping of fresh watermelon today, so nardek is produced in only small amounts. It’s a lot of trouble to make, after all, and today refined sugar is cheap. For Fresno Lutherans, however, the tradition lives on, or at least it was still alive in 1979. Nearly a century after their ancestors had come to Fresno from Russia, the Friendly Aid Society members still required watermelon molasses to make a proper coffeecake.
The Friendly Aid Society members called their watermelon molasses by the English name, the same one I used. But I thank Sara for sending me on the trail of an old word—nardek—for my invention that truly wasn’t new at all.