I was delighted by the pile of diminutive striped mystery melons I recently found at a favorite produce shop. The melons looked a bit like a cross between a cantaloupe and a carnival squash. Their sign bore a very cheap price and a name that was entirely unfamiliar to me.
Sharantain? I never heard of it. Neither had Google. "Did you mean Sharlyn?" Google asked not-so helpfully.
I knew I needn't stay ignorant for long. The melons were adorned with pesky stickers. PLU codes to the rescue!
PLU, or "Product Look Up" Codes, are assigned by the International Federation for Produce Standards, an international body that should really recruit me to join. These are the codes that cashiers type in at supermarket registers, but curious consumers and fruit fetishists are also welcome to type a number into the PLU Code database to figure out What the heck is that? Number 3033, the number on the melon's stickers, corresponded to "Charentais, small."
Also appearing on the sticker, albeit in tiny letters, written on an angle: the word Charentais. Oh yeah!
Charentais melons are also known as French cantaloupes. Their origins - and their name - come from the Poitou-Charentes region of France, where they were bred for refinement, "free of natural and highly occurring warts of its parent varieties." I hazily recalled a few past specimens from pricey gourmet stores, fragrant and expensive. These humbler cousins, (who, according to the PLU stickers, hailed from Guatemala) lacked an enticing scent, but also lacked the stiff price tag. Many fruit enthusiasts rhapsodize about the charentais: "Considered by many to be the most divine and flavorful melon in the world...sweet, juicy orange flesh with a heavenly fragrance," said this seed catalogue. And an exotic fruit vendor composed this tribute:
Charentais melons are said to be the finest melons in both taste and texture...They have an orange flesh and a luscious, flowery aroma. Popular in Europe, Charentais are especially prized in France for their rich, honeyed finish.
So how to the charentais stack up against the mundane, everyday cantaloupe?
The ones I tried - and when paying just 99 cents for each melon, I could be a scientist, with a quasi-statistically significant sample - were very nice, sweet and juicy though not noteworthily fragrant.
But it's February, for godsakes, and there is no inalienable right to great summer fruit in February. By this standard, the charentais hit a home run.
I'll be buying more, if I can. Charentais is a great cantaloupe -- by whatever name it's known.