It’s really hard to grow decent sweet melons. Bugs and mould love them, they’re hungry feeders, and it’s very easy to end up with tasteless, watery melons for all your troubles. Like last year, we’ve gotten sweet melons at the end of summer from Kleinjongenskraal Farm in Citrusdal, one of our largest farm suppliers. Sweet melons that, aesthetically speaking, only an ice cream maker could love. They’re misshapen and dented, blotchy and very small. Yubari melons, they are not. But they smell heavenly and taste, for the most part, pretty good.
Technically speaking, we make our sweet melons into a sherbet, which is somewhere between an ice cream and a sorbet on the dairy/fat scale. It’s pretty rustic, a little icy, not very smooth, but intensely flavourful. Due to its light texture, we only scoop it into cups, not cones. It’s not a really big seller, but a lot of customers seem surprised and happy to see it on our menu in late summer, a final, sweet goodbye to the warm weather and its abundance of fruit.
I don’t think I would have thought of sweet melon ice cream by myself; even though spanspek are richer and denser than, say, a watermelon, melons don’t seem like obvious ice cream material, unlike strawberries or peaches. Like many (most?) good ideas, I got it from somewhere else, and I like to think our sweet melon ice cream as my own private hat tip to one of the best meals I ever ate, about eight years ago.
I’d just finished studying for a year as an exchange student at the University of Bologna, and was spending a couple weeks doing volunteer farm work on a family-owned farm in Northern Italy. I was travelling by myself around Lake Garda on a weekend off, when I stumbled upon a really nondescript trattoria that I found in the Slow Food eater’s bible, L’Osterie d’Italia. I ate course after course of totally perfect local fish from the lake, and for dessert, they brought out a simple saucer with two curving moons of sweet melon, with a small slice of sweet melon semifreddo alongside. I thought to myself, “They have totally overplayed their hand. No way a semifreddo will beat perfect Italian melons in a side by side tasting”.
I was wrong.
The semifreddo took everything that was best about the sweet melon -the fruitiness, the perfume – and heightened it. Transformed from soft and juicy fruit into something ice cold and totally different in texture. Each mouthful was like tasting sweet melons for the first time, simultaneously a totally new experience and yet a deeper exploration of something so familiar. Those Italian cooks took something seemingly perfect – and made it even better. It was utterly fantastic.
I think of that meal as an important moment in my ice cream education. What that trattoria did with the melon semifreddo is what we try to do here in the kitchen, every day, six litres at a time. It’s a bit of an impossible task, trying to improve upon what nature has already perfected, but sometimes, we get it right. And while most of my customers are transported to their grandmothers’ kitchens with a mouthful of lemon curd swirl, or to forbidden childhood sips of their fathers’ beers with our Darling Brew ice cream, one flavour of my own, personal nostalgia is to be found in the taste of sweet melon sherbet.