The Montreal Melon

In memory of Fred Aubin, July 14 1929 - June 9 2003
One of the original Montreal farmers of the Montreal Melon



Circa 1935 in what is now the NDG area of Montreal

 



Circa 1934 - my grandfather Romeo (2nd from left), father (far left) and uncle Norman (3rd from left)

August 2003.
The melons aren't as large but we're working on it (ruler measures 18 inches)
We had a crop of 12 Montreal Melons this year.

Its History

The Montreal melon, also known as the Montreal market muskmelon or the Montreal nutmeg melon, is a variety melon recently rediscovered and cultivated in the Montreal, Canada area. Scientifically, it is a cultivar of Cucumis melo melo.

The origins of the melon are lost in time, although an ancient strain of the fruit was grown in Montreal by the Jesuits as early as 1694. French settlers brought melon seeds with them over when they settled in Montreal. The Cavaillon melon probably finds itself among the variety's ancestors. These crossed with many different varieties over the years, including the Giant Green Nutmeg melon from the US. The Montreal melon was derived from one such type and perfected by the Decarie and Gorman families, each of which had a variety named after it. The large, well-netted, green-fleshed, highly aromatic Montreal melons were said to be the tastiest melons around. However, the seeds couldn't be saved because seed rights for each strain were retained by the Decarie and Gorman families.

Melons were carefully cultivated and selected from year to year from the mid-seventeenth century on. Eventually, a particularly large, profuse and flavorful variety evolved and by the 1870s the Montreal Melon Variety had been perfected. By the 1880s the Burpee's seed catalogue distributed it as one of their most popular varieties across New England. Several families were known for their Montreal Melons - the Decaries, for instance, had a reputation for the largest fruits. There were two main types, varying only in shape--the older Décarie and the more recent Gorman, both named after farming families. It is the Décarie family that is most closely associated with melons. Their large farms on the western edge of Montréal produced the lion's share of fruit exported abroad. This area of the city, long since built over, is still linked closely to the family: the main highway running through it is called the Décarie Expressway.

It was orginally widely grown between the St. Lawrence River and Mount Royal, on the Montreal Plain. In its prime from the late 19th century until World War II, it was one of the most popular varieties of melon on the east coast of North America. The fruit was large (larger than any other melon cultivated on the continent at the time), round, netted (like a cantaloupe), flattened at the ends, deeply ribbed, with a thin rind. Its flesh was light green, almost melting in the mouth when eaten. Its spicy flavor was reminiscent of nutmeg.

The classic Montréal Melon looked spectacular, too. Averaging 10 to 15 pounds in weight, the choicest specimens of the two types--the round "Décarie" and the oval "Gorman"--were ridged like pumpkins, only more deeply, more sculpturally. The outer skin resembled that of the cantaloupe. But here too the Montréal Melon had more character: the "netting" of lacy lines that covered its surface was more varied, more intricate and more beautiful than that of its smaller cousin. All of these features prompted the owner of Montréal's stylish Windsor Hotel - the Décarie family's melons were shipped to the top hotels in Boston, New York and Chicago. And like all luxury items, they were expensive. In 1906, No. 1 melons fetched $8 to $10 per dozen wholesale. In 1907, the price was $15 per dozen. And by 1921, it had reached $25 to $35. By that time, a single slice of Montréal Melon in Boston hotels cost $1 or $1.50--more than the price of most steaks

It disappeared as Montreal grew. It's delicate rind, suitable for the family farm, was ill-suited to agribusiness. Industrial agriculture took over, privileging fruits that required little attention in the field and shipped and stored well. The Montreal Melon did not fit the bill - the melon was labor intensive, demanding individual attention on a daily basis from its farmer. Its thin rind made it hard to ship - back in the day there were companies devoted to Montreal Melon basket weaving in order to transport the fruit!

Like everything else in culture and society, food is affected by fashion and convenience. The Montreal melon remained popular for decades, but began to disappear after the 1920s. And from the 1920s on, the Montréal Melon declined in popularity--as the melon farms themselves were swallowed up by urban expansion. Urbanization wiped out the fields on the south-facing slopes of Mont Royal on which it was originally grown. Tastes changed: among the melon family, the more exotically flavored cantaloupe rose to stardom. Smaller--and nowhere near as spectacular looking as the Montréal Melon-cantaloupes were hardier and easier to transport. Smaller, rounder, earlier musk melons were in style; new hybrids were launched annually, only to be dumped for even newer, "more improved" varieties the following year. Rising wages and land values increased costs to farmers and profit margins fell. Better, faster means of shipping meant that a wider variety of fresh imported fruits became available to consumers and the good old local melon had a hard time competing with them. It has even been said that the invention of the car doomed the Montréal Melon! How? Well, for years the "secret ingredient" that made the melon so exquisitely plump, flavorful and large was horse manure, the fertilizer of choice for melon farmers. More cars, fewer horses, fewer choice melons. But maybe the most credible scientific reason for the melon's gradual demise is the fact that the genotype of the Montréal Melon is not stable and must be carefully selected out every year in order to maintain the character and quality of the fruit. Old-fashioned fruits like the Montreal melon fell out of favour, and many were lost entirely.

In fact, in 1991, when Barry Lazar, a Montreal filmmaker and freelance journalist, began looking for the melon after hearing old-timers rave about its extraordinary flavour, he could find no traces of it. It looked as if the Montreal melon was extinct. Finally, in 1995, a few very old seeds were found in a seed bank maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the University of Ames, Iowa. Organic gardener Ken Taylor, of Windmill Farm Organics in Ile Perrot--a supplier of heritage seeds--was able to get one plant to germinate. It produced a beautifully formed, deliciously sweet melon and plenty of seeds.

Links

Action Communiterre - The Montreal Melon: brought back to its native NDG soil after over a generation of extinction
Montreal's Marveleous Melon

debra aubin 2003 © aubin@netcom.ca
No photos may be republished without permission.