Cuisine à L’Ancienne
I love making dishes that have gone out of fashion, either because they’re too much work, require hard-to-find ingredients, or both. Here, in Confiture de Pastèque, or watermelon jam, we have both.
We tasted a mysterious treat last summer while staying at a chambre d’hôte in Provence. Spread on toast and with a flavor that was evocative but indefinable, our hostess said it was made from pastèque, watermelon, that it was very old-fashioned, and that only her mother-in-law still made it. But the jam was a greeny-gold color, not what I normally associate with watermelon. Returning home, I asked a local vegetable guy if I could use watermelon to make jam. He said “Oh no, Madame, not pastèque, you need a citre.” “What’s a citre?” “A type of pastèque, only for jam, not for eating. Wait until September.”
And so I did. While waiting I tried to figure out whether citre had a name in English. It’s citrullus lanatus in Latin, and it’s called gigerine in Provencale, but that’s as far as I got. If anyone knows, please do tell!
The moment I saw this weird melon down at the bottom of the fruit display, I knew it had to be a citre. When I asked the vegetable guy whether it were red inside, he hesitated quite a long time before saying “Well, I don’t think so, I think it’s more white, but honestly, I haven’t seen the inside of one since my grandfather used to cut them open.” So, full of excitement and anticipation, I lugged it home, where Beppo thought it warranted a good looking-over as well.
The citre was much harder to cut open than one would imagine. It had a hard rind like a winter squash, was full of pebble-hard seeds, and was juicy and sticky. I kept having to rinse the knife and my hands, and honestly, it took me about 40 minutes to get the thing diced and seeded. And as you see, it’s sort of white, sort of green. Not much like a watermelon, a long-lost cousin at best.
The recipe for confiture de pastèque, which also mentioned that a citre could be used, calls for adding either orange or lemon. Since I had a citre, and lemon is citron in French, I decided that my jam had to be citre-citron, if only for the delicious alliteration. My recipe called for mixing the diced fruit with sugar and leaving that to macerate over night, then cooking it “for a very long time, at least an hour and a half.” In the end it cooked almost twice that long before achieving the syrupy greeny-goldness I remembered from that summer toast.
And yes, it has that same haunting flavor. Reminiscent of cucumber, honeydew melon, and watermelon, but in the end none of the above. It’s the taste of mystery, but I find an almost greater enjoyment in the fact that it’s something of a lost fruit, that making jam of it is something of a lost art, and that nonetheless, we’ll be having it for breakfast.
* if you’d like the recipe, it’s below in the Comments section
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