Much as melons are popular summertime fruits today, they found a spot on the Roman table. Here, I describe gardening, convoluted melon terminology, and an ancient melon salad recipe you can make in your own kitchen.
A photo I took of the chopped melon salad in a bowl, served with the dressing over top.
With summertime all but here, I've noticed myself spending a lot more time outside.
Last spring, I planted a garden out of boredom, and I ended up with lots of dead greenery. I realized I don't have a green thumb, but I also had a great time tending to my plants (until the heat got the best of them).
This year, I figured I'd give my garden a second go. I read a stack of books about rearing plants and I found seeds for interesting herbs like borage, yarrow, and St. John's wort. Alongside these herbs I planted food plants, too: I don't just want to make tea!
Many of the crops I'm growing are New World stock — tomatoes, peppers, and beans. But there's one seedling I'm tending to that I'm especially excited to harvest in a month or two: a melon plant.
Melons and, more broadly, their cucurbit kin — pumpkins, squash, gourds, and cucumbers — are grown all over the world now (including my backyard), even though their historical ranges were much smaller. Pumpkins and winter squashes were first cultivated in Mesoamerica, but nobody knows exactly where melons came from.
It's thought that watermelons originated in Africa, as remains of melon seeds have also been found in Egypt and Libya. Plus, watermelon landraces from Zimbabwe have very high genetic diversity (which likely means they were bred extensively in the area). Muskmelons may hail from Africa, too, or they may have been first domesticated in the Levant, Iran, or central Asia.
In any case, melons are particularly handy fruits. In times of drought (or in hot deserts), they act like little edible jugs, giving water and sustenance to parched, hungry folks.
Probably for this purpose, melons have long been grown beyond their cradle of cultivation. In 2017, archaeologists unearthed sacred wells built by the Nuragic civilization in Sardinia. Inside the wells, dating back over 3,000 years, the excavators found — you guessed it — melon seeds.
A millennium later across the Tyrrhenian Sea, melons were growing in Roman gardens and cropping up in their meals. I took this dish from the cookbook Apicius, a treasure trove of ancient recipes. There are scores of recipes for produce, but nearly all of them make savory vegetable dishes — this melon recipe happens to be a notable exception.
So in the spirit of light, summery food, here's the formula for melon salad, in Latin and English:
Pepones et melones: piper, puleium, mel vel passum, liquamen, acetum; interdum et silfi accedit.
Pepones and melones: pepper, pennyroyal, honey or passum, liquamen, vinegar, and sometimes add silphium.
Just by the looks of it, this dish gives the ingredients of a dressing to go with the melon. We'll have to swap out some of the ingredients (as I'll explain later), but it seems very straightforward. Except for the marrow of this dish: the melon.
I've whipped up a dish with gourds once before. Last summer, I cooked Alexandrian gourd, or cucurbitas more alexandrine. As I learned then, the Latin words for cucurbits are unclear. In my reading, I found five words for these fruits in Latin:
Apart from descriptions in a few botanical catalogues, there's little evidence to establish which word describes which species.
Based on what we do have — accounts, etymology, and inferences — it seems that cucumis describes our modern cucumber. And in the recipe I made for Alexandrian gourd, I decided the cucurbita in question was the bottle gourd from sub-Saharan Africa.
Those are fine and well, but the other three terms — pepo, melo, and melopepo — are vexing. All three arrived in Latin from Greek, and it seems like they're all variations of the same word. By delving further into historical sources, though, we learn there are a few revealing differences in the melons they described.
The Latin word pepo comes from the Greek πεπον (pepon), and the fruit was covered amply in the writings of the latter language. Dioscorides, a Greek physician, prescribes the rind of the pepon to place on the foreheads of children suffering from heatstroke. Ostensibly, any melon could fit the bill. The rind of the watermelon (Citrullus lanatus), though, would probably be the best at cooling given its high water content.
Centuries later, Pliny the Elder described in his work Naturalis historia (Natural History) that the largest gourds were called pepones. As watermelons are generally larger than kindred melons, the watermelon seems to be a solid candidate for the Latin pepo.
In the same chapter, Pliny tells of another melon variety: the melopepo. Here is what he says:
It is only of late, too, that a gourd of entirely new shape has been produced in Campania, it having just the form of a quince... The name given to this variety is melopepo. These last do not grow hanging, but assume their round shape as they lie on the ground. A thing that is very remarkable in them, in addition to their shape, color, and smell, is the fact that, when ripe, although they do not hang from the stem, they separate from it at the stalk.
The arrival of this new quince-shaped fruit struck Pliny, but what he noted as most remarkable was how they detached from their stems on their own. It might seem insignificant to us, this fact, but there's only one Old World species whose fruits drop from the plant when ripe: the muskmelon (Cucumis melo).
Other ancient authors suggest that the melopepo and the melo are similar fruits. I think it's safe to say, then, that the melo is some type of muskmelon, like a cantaloupe or honeydew.
Now that we've settled on the melons, there are two ingredient swaps I've made. The first: pennyroyal is a type of mint, so I used spearmint since it's tricky to find. The other swap was for silphium, an herb that grew around Cyrene on Libya's coast. Unfortunately for us (and for later Romans, even), silphium went extinct — but the stinky spice asafoetida offers a substitute.
Whew! With all of that out of the way, here's my take on the pepo and melo salad from Apicius:
1 cantaloupe or muskmelon
¼ cup of red wine vinegar
2 tbsp of honey
1 tbsp of liquamen
10-12 leaves of mint
¼ tsp of peppercorns
¼ tsp of asafoetida
Quarter the cantaloupe and watermelon, then cube the flesh (I did this by cutting it from the rind first). Stir the vinegar, honey, and liquamen together in a bowl. Mince the mint, then add it into the sauce along with the ground peppercorns and asafoetida. Move the melon into a bowl and pour the sauce over. Either let the flavors meld for a few minutes for a more aromatic savor, or enjoy right away.
Photos of the ingredients for the salad (somehow I forgot the watermelon!); the finished salad; and a melon-shaped Roman bead, c. 1st century BC-1st century AD.
I'm partial to melons, but I really liked this dish! The vinegar cut through the sweetness of the melons, though it was balanced out by the honey. The mint was tastily aromatic, and though asafoetida is a funky-smelling spice, it added great depth and tempered the salad's sweetness. I think this dish is one that could be eaten unironically — beyond the realm of ancient cooking — as it's cool and refreshing.
Now, there is a good chance Roman melons had thicker rinds and less sweetness, like the modern orange versus its ancestor, the citron. Though the fruits featured in this salad have changed — I would argue for the better — other things have stayed largely the same.
People still retire to the countryside in the summer, much like the Roman statesmen (and possibly part-time melon-growers) did to their villas just beyond civilization. And much like with classical Rome, with summertime here in the States comes seasonal crops: peaches, corn, and my favorite, melons.