This is a citron. Its name is confusing: most hear it and assume it is part of the citrus family. “Citron,” after all, is the French word for lemon, and there is a citrus fruit grown in the Mediterranean called a citron, or kitron, that resembles a large lime.
The subject of this post is emphatically not a citrus fruit. It is a type of melon, so it often goes by the name citron melon to avoid confusion.
At first glance a citron melon looks like a small watermelon, except that it is perfectly round, with spackled streaks arching from pole to pole. If you cut this globe into hemispheres you’ll find an interior that is pale green, crunchy, and almost completely without flavour. What little taste there is at times reminds me of honeydew melon, at others cucumber, and still others pumpkin.
What interests me about the citron melon is not so much its flavour, but how it got to me, and why it exists.
I first heard of this fruit a few years ago when doing some research on my family history and prodding my relatives for details on what they ate growing up, and what my grandparents and great grandparents grew and prepared on their farms in Ontario. Citron came up as a common fruit (or was it a vegetable?) that was preserved as marmalade and pickles. When I pushed relatives for a description, comparisons as diverse as zucchini and watermelon were made. It baffled me, a professional cook, that I had never heard of a food that was grown by my own family in Ontario. I had never seen a citron melon in a grocery store, or a cook book.
This fall I visited family in northern Ontario and finally came face to face with a citron. Friends had recently harvested the the last of their vegetables, and on the front porch was a small stack of the enigmatic melons. I learned that the fruit is not sold in markets or grocery stores in the area, and seeds are not for sale at nurseries or hardware stores. In fact citrons only continue to exist in northern Ontario because home gardeners save the seeds from last year’s crop.
Of course seed-saving is how most domesticated plants have been propagated for thousands of years, and of course gardeners continue to save seed from particularly hearty or tasty or pretty plants. But this practice seemed particularly precious to me because I doubt there is any local seed bank or commercial nursery that has “back-up” seeds of citron melon – only hobby gardeners in rural Ontario doing what their parents and grandparents did before them. A tenuous existence.
I came back to Edmonton with one medium-sized citron, a baggy of seeds, and a recipe for citron marmalade. Citron melon often gets treated like tomatoes that haven’t quite ripened, or zucchini that have grown too long and tough: chopped, stewed with sugar, and made into marmalade or piccalilli. Unfortunately this means that the consumption of citron relies on a cheap and abundant supply of sugar.
1. Ontarians have a bizarre sense of geography. Directions tend to be expressed in relation to Toronto: southwestern Ontario, for instance, is the long arm of land that stretches into the great lakes, southwest of Toronto, even though it is actually in the southeast of the province. Northern Ontario comprises any part of the province above Lake Superior and Georgian Bay, even though this is all in the western part of the province and well below the geographical centre.
2. Some quick internet searches suggest that the citron melon is still a fairly common fruit in other parts of the world, notably parts of Africa and the American south.