“It is chief of this world’s luxuries, king by grace of God over all the fruits of the earth. When one has tasted it, he knows what the angels eat.”Mark Twain – Pudd’nhead Wilson
There is a taste of summer. I remember it from my youth. Along with sweet corn, and lemonade, the smell of fresh cut grass, and barbecue (lighter fluid is positively Proustian), it defined the hazy edges of hazy days stretching into sharp-edged nights, impossible to tell where fireflies ended and the swooping, singing stars began. Watermelon. Cold and crisp, chin-dripping perfect, ripe for seed-spitting and sticky fingers.
And like the (probably apocryphal) story of Dom Pérignon’s discovery of champagne, and his exclamation upon first sip, “I am tasting the stars!”, Citrullus Ianatus is the flavor of those halcyon days.
It was a whole experience – Dad bringing in the striated alien pod, forearms bulging, getting out the ‘big knife’, the stab, the leveraged slice, the cracking open to reveal the pink and punctuated, dripping flesh, the smell rolling across the kitchen or back porch like a cool and embracing storm front.
There are no bad memories of watermelon.
Watermelon juice was not a part of my growing up (other than slurping puddles from scooped out rinds), it was always wedges, or demi-lunes, and sometimes cubes. I have vague memories of melon balls at other people’s houses but never our own. It wasn’t until years later and many miles away, on a backstreet in Mombasa, that I had my first glass of chilled and sugary summer. A smiling muuzaji, a fruit vendor, blitzing up some of his produce with a little ice. A pinch of salt was offered, but I declined. And there, in the middle of a dusty road on the African subcontinent, surrounded by half-naked children and chickens, bundles of sugarcane, and curious goats, I tasted…Ohio, condensation dripping off the glass. It was literally the most delicious thing I had ever drunk.
Since then I have indulged whenever the season permits, and watermelon is definitely a seasonal pleasure. Here in France the weekly marché in July and August is a gauntlet of venders proffering samples, “On profite! De la pastèque fraîche! Goûtez! Goûtez!”
At our regular stall, Zaza, the young one, carries the fruit he’s selected for me to Joseph, the proprietor. Joseph frowns quizzically, “Zaza…c’est pour Monsieur. Vas-y!” and he shoos him off. Zaza returns with another choice, Joseph sighs, grabs it and walks off behind the stall himself to return with, admittedly, a damn fine looking melon. He shrugs his shoulders towards his younger helper, “Je suis désolé.” What can ya do?
A note about juicing watermelons: they don’t call them ‘water’ melons for nothing. The average US melon comes in at @ 20 lbs (9kg); in France they’re a bit smaller, with thinner rinds, a typical pastèque comes in around 6 kg (13 lbs). At 92% water, 4% sugars, and a little bit of fibre to hold it all together, that US melon will yield roughly 19 pints (@ 2.5 gallons) of juice; it’s French cousine will surrender 5.75 litres (1.5 gallons). An astonishingly small amount of pulp results, about enough to fill a large coffee mug.
That’s more than enough juice to experiment, and we came up with several summer apéros. All credit to my excellent mixologist and wife…
2 oz Vodka
1 oz Triple sec
2.5 oz Watermelon juice
Ginger infused simple syrup (to taste)
Wedge of Lime
Champagne to top off
Combine the Vodka, Triple sec, Watermelon juice, and healthy splash of Ginger simple syrup in a cocktail shaker with generous ice. Squeeze in juice from lime wedge. Shake until it’s too frosty to hold. Strain into a martini glass, top with (chilled) champagne. Garnish with lime slice, appreciate the summer…
Cumbermelon and Tonic
2 oz Vodka
2 oz Watermelon juice
5 Mint leaves
5 slices Cucumber
Squeeze of Lemon juice
Tonic to top off
Muddle the Mint and Cucumber in a cocktail shaker with the Lemon juice. Add the Vodka, Watermelon juice, and ice. Again, shake it ‘til it’s hard to hold. Strain into a rocks glass, top off with a healthy splash of tonic, garnish with cucumber and mint.
As a bonus drink, I thought to try a combination of Pastèque and Pastis purely for its alliterative qualities, feeling fairly certain it would be, well, fairly awful. Surprizingly, it was quite excellent, rocketing me back to another taste of childhood…
The Good ‘n Plenty aka The Licorice Snap
No need for measurements, simply pour equal parts Pastis and Watermelon juice over ice and stir…
And to put your mind at ease, watermelon juice is basically a sports drink, making these cocktails almost health food. Low in calories (92% water!), full of vitamin C, B vitamins, and electrolytes (including potassium), it’s one of the best sources of the phytonutrient lycopene, an antioxidant shown to be helpful against certain types of cancer and heart disease. It also contains citrulline, an amino acid that has an action similar to Sildenafil, or Viagra, relaxing blood vessels and improving blood flow. So there’s that.