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Summer in the Quercy is melon time

As you read this the first Quercy melons should be available on your local farmers’ market as well as in your favorite supermarket. Perhaps you already know how to choose a good one, but perhaps you were unaware of just what a wonderful fruit it is and how many varieties exist!

Melons belong to the cucurbitaceous family and the cucumis genus and originated in South West Asia. Interestingly, watermelons belong to the citrullus genus and originated in Africa. In China melons have been well known for centuries for their digestive and diuretic qualities, and the seeds are used to this day to keep fevers in check. The fruit is also considered to be anti-cancerous and, like grapes, is a favorite for “de-tox” cures.  Per 100 grams weight, melons contain a mere 48 calories/200 kilojoules.  The vitamin C content is higher than in apples, pears or apricots, while melons also contain significant quantities of vitamin A and B, as well as minerals and trace elements such as iron, zinc, copper, manganese, iodine.  Potassium content is high at 300mg per 100gr. 

Several varieties of melons were introduced to Europe by the Romans and were known by the generic Latin name “malepepo” and, it seems, was one of the earliest plants to be domesticated in both the so-called “old” and “new” worlds – taken there by European explorers and settlers.

The delicious Quercy melon belongs to the Charentais type, of which there are many, literally dozens, of different varieties, all displaying the distinct characteristics of a whitish, green striped, mat or slightly shiny, but usually rough skin (professionals speak of the “écriture”), with highly aromatic, orange flesh. A ripe Quercy melon should show nuances of yellow with the stem beginning to detach at its base and have a distinct aroma.  

Melons are cultivated from seeds which are developed by a number of different large seed companies such as Clause, Nunhems, Sakata, Syngenta… These companies all pride themselves in developing improved, new varieties by crossing between plants (they do not modify the genes, so they are not GM’s) to obtain varieties suitable, or ideal, for different climates, seasons and soils. 

The seeds are then passed on to a producer of market garden plants, who will in turn sell the plants on to growers, from large local or foreign concerns to small holding farmers and in some cases also individuals. Large concerns will typically sell their produce to supermarkets, while farmers will sell at nearby street markets or even from home.

If you find yourself on the road between Lauzerte in the Tarn & Garonne department and Montcuq in the Lot, you will notice a large expanse of hothouses and a board indicating “Fraunié Plants” and perhaps you’ll wonder what it is all about. Well, that is where our melon plants are cultivated and exported far and wide. The hothouses cover 4.5 hectares, sheltering thousands upon thousands of tiny plants, all carefully ensconced in small compartments in specially adapted soil, including peat, brought all the way from Northern Germany. But the real surprise comes when you look closer and notice that, delicate as they are, they are all grafted and held together with miniature pincers. No wonder that Fraunié employs a dedicated staff of over 100, trained to do the grafting and take care of the plants.

Hothouse for grafting plants

The Fraunié family have been in the plant growing business, initially cereals and pulses, since 1987. Today the range includes garden vegetables and herbs and the company has been Ecocert organic certified since 2009. They have been grafting melon plants since 2005. 

“In the early days, melons were grafted exclusively onto squash rootstock. Very hardy, but with the drawback of a slight pumpkin undertone. The Italians, being very particular about taste, began grafting melons onto melon root stock and we followed suit around 2008”, Jean-Claude Fraunié explains. “Grafting prevents the development of fusarium oxysporum, a fungus that thrives specifically on melons, much like phylloxera attacks grape vines and indeed all but destroyed the wine industry a century ago, leading to the generalized practice of grafting of vines.”

Equally importantly, grafting enhances the selection of varieties well adapted to the needs of growers in different areas as well as those of consumers, who have become very demanding and selective. “One of the positive aspects of the organic movement is that growers are more and more inclined to respect the end-user: you and me, especially our preference for tasty as well as healthy food. In the past, growers were tempted to comply primarily with the needs of supermarkets, meaning that resistance to bruises during transport and manipulation and shelf life were primary considerations, along with visual appearance. Today, this approach is changing fast. The days of beautiful, but tasteless tomatoes and strawberries - the two most famous culprits - are all but gone. Even consumers with very limited resources prefer to consume less, but better and give preference to taste as well as nutritional and health concerns. By developing a large range of different grafted varieties, we are able to grow excellent melons under varying conditions and over a longer season, typically getting a quality product to the consumer roughly from July until October in the Quercy region. If you eat a good melon early in the season, chances are it might be, for instance, an Alonso, an Arapaho or a Gandalf. Later in the season it might be a Hugo or a Match. However, don’t be disappointed if the vendor is unable to tell you which variety you are buying, there are simply too many”. 

By the way, if you are wondering why you see so much white plastic covering orchards and other plantations, the reason is that many insects, such as aphids, are repulsed by white, which means limiting the use of pesticides, while of course also creating micro-climates.

But what makes Quercy melons so special? The secret is in the soil. The clay-lime soil of the region is ideal for melons. Clay is an excellent natural support for retaining moisture and the lime is what gives melons - and for that matter many other fruits - their aroma. And what about melons from Cavaillon or the Gers?  According to Mr Fraunié, “they are essentially all the same plants, and in fact most likely from our hothouses but, in addition to the grower’s talents, the terroir will make all the difference, just like for grapes and wine. Of course, the locals will always claim their terroir and product is the best!”

And on that note, a final comment: many nutritionists argue that fruit is best eaten separate from meals and, in particular due to their digestive and diuretic qualities, this certainly applies to all types of melons. They are best eaten before meals and on their own and even better first thing in the morning. A melon a day keeps the doctor away! 

For more information and for purchasing plants visit www.fraunie.plants.fr 

by Jeanne McCaul, Lauzerte

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