One of the most common ways that Italians show their pride is by wearing or displaying the national colors (red, white and green). National pride might also explain why the similarly colored watermelon is so popular in Italy and why it’s not uncommon to see street vendors selling wedges of watermelon during summer festivals and other celebrations.
Watermelon also plays a key role in many Italian holidays. During the Assumption Day celebrations – a major religious holiday observed throughout Italy – a watermelon feast is held in Venice to help “keep community ties.” In the Italian city of Villa Lagarina, legend has it that when a truckload of watermelon arrived in the 1920s, the townsfolk were astonished by the look of the fruit and placed the bounty in the fountain at the center of town. The tradition continues to this day with the “watermelon fountain” being filled each year during the three-day celebration.
Watermelons are about 93% water, the highest water content of all fruits. They are also rich in potassium, one of the elements the body loses through sweating, as well as vitamins A and C. Watermelon’s sweetness is due in large part to some of the aromatic compounds it contains, yet they are low in calories. Watermelons originated in Tropical Africa and are in the same family that also includes cantaloupes, cucumbers, squash and zucchini. They were first cultivated by the Egyptians thousands of years ago and arrived in Europe in the 1200s with the returning Crusaders.
People quickly realized the value of this fruit during the summer months and, as they became known amongst the country folk, they picked up local names: Anguria in much of Northern Italy, Cocomero in Tuscany and Melone D’Acqua (water melon) in parts of the south, especially around Naples. Their popularity continues and the annual Italian watermelon crop is between 550 and 600,000 metric tons, which translates to about 100 million watermelons. They first appear in the Italian markets in May and the season lasts until the beginning of September.
Growing watermelons can be complicated. Not only because there are three basic types: normal, hybrid and seedless but each type needs a different culture. Watermelons need healthy, warm soil. Once the seeds are pollinated and there is sufficient heat, a watermelon will mature in about four months. Another important consideration is the fact that watermelon vines appreciate sufficient water, but overwatering can be a problem if the vines are not grown on fast draining sandy soils. Probably the single most common modern cultural practice in watermelon culture is the use of black plastic to cover the raised beds on which the melon plants are planted. The black plastic heats up the soil and this is quite beneficial. Watermelon fruits produced on black plastic will usually produce earlier and more quickly and with sweeter fruits.
In Italy, many growers now grow watermelons in polytunnels – a tunnel made of polyethylene, usually semi-circular, square or elongated in shape. The tunnels significantly improve the speed of growth and sweetness of the fruits, as well as protecting the fruits from physical damage. Growers who use polytunnels are almost obligated to hand-pollinate, just because attracting enough bees inside the tunnels is a difficult task.
Italian Watermelon Ice
Makes about 5 cups
- 1/3 cup water
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 3-pound piece chilled watermelon
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
In a small saucepan simmer the water with the sugar, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Transfer the syrup to a bowl set in a larger bowl of ice and cold water and stir occasionally until the syrup until cold.
Discard the rind from watermelon and cut the fruit into 1-inch chunks. In a blender purée the watermelon chunks, syrup and lemon juice. Pour the mixture through a fine sieve into a 9-inch square metal baking pan, pressing hard on the solids in the sieve. Freeze the mixture, covered, until frozen, about 6 to 8 hours. The mixture can be left in the freezer for 2 days. Just before serving, scrape the watermelon ice with a fork to lighten texture and break up ice crystals. Serve in the traditional paper cups.
- 2 cups watermelon cubes
- 1 cup vanilla frozen yogurt
- 2 pinches ground cardamom
Combine the ingredients in a blender and purée. Serve immediately.
Watermelon Salad with Hot Pepper and Basil
Makes 4 cups
- 2 cups watermelon chunks
- 3/4 cup minced red onion
- 1/2 cup seedless grapes, quartered
- 1 green bell pepper, finely chopped
- 2 teaspoons minced hot chili peppers
- 3 tablespoons lime juice
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 3 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh basil
- Salt and pepper to taste
Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and toss well. Allow the flavors to blend before serving.
Grilled Chicken Topped with Watermelon Salad
- 4 medium-sized chicken breasts
- 1/2 small watermelon, cut into large cubes
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
- 1 small onion, diced fine
- 1 pinch paprika
- 1 pinch cumin
- 1 Lemon, zested
- 4 tomatoes, diced into large pieces
- 1/2 cup olives, pitted and chopped
- 4 roasted red peppers, thinly sliced
- Half of a small eggplant, peeled and sliced
- 10 sun-dried tomatoes, sliced in half
- 1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for the grill
- 1/2 cup parsley leaves, chopped
- 1 cup feta cheese, broken into bite-sized pieces
- Salt and pepper to taste
Heat an outdoor or indoor grill. Brush with olive oil. Brush the chicken and eggplant slices with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Cook chicken on each side for 5-6 minutes, or until cooked to 165 degrees F. Remove chicken to a clean plate to cool. Cook the eggplant about 2 minutes on each side, remove to a cutting board and cut into small dice.
Heat a small skillet over medium heat and add the 1 tablespoon olive oil, garlic and onion. Sauté for 1-2 minutes, then add the diced eggplant, paprika, cumin and lemon zest. Cook for another minute.
Remove to a large bowl and add the fresh tomatoes, olives, roasted red peppers and sun-dried tomatoes and mix gently. Stir in the parsley leaves, watermelon and feta.
Cut chicken breast into thin slices and place on individual plates. Evenly divide the tomato watermelon salad between the plates.
Grilled Tuna with Watermelon Salsa
- Two 5 ounce fresh or frozen tuna steaks, cut 3/4- to 1-inch thick
- 1/4 teaspoon ground oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon finely shredded lime peel
- 2 tablespoons lime juice
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup chopped seeded watermelon
- 1/2 cup chopped yellow or orange sweet bell pepper
- 1 green onion, thinly sliced
- 2 teaspoons snipped fresh mint
- Lime wedges (optional)
Rinse fish; pat dry with paper towels. Place fish in a large resealable plastic bag set in a shallow dish. Set aside.
In a small bowl, mix together the ground oregano, the lime peel, lime juice, olive oil, 1/8 teaspoon of the crushed red pepper and the salt. Pour over the fish in the bag; turn to coat fish. Seal bag. Marinate in the refrigerator for 30 to 60 minutes, turning bag occasionally.
For the salsa:
In a small bowl, combine the chopped watermelon, bell pepper, green onion, mint and the remaining 1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper. Set aside.
Drain fish, discarding marinade.
For a charcoal grill, grill fish on the greased rack of an uncovered grill directly over medium coals for 6 to 10 minutes or until fish flakes easily when tested with a fork, gently turning once halfway through grilling. (For a gas grill, preheat grill. Reduce heat to medium. Place fish on the greased grill rack over direct heat. Cover and grill as above.)
Serve fish topped with watermelon mixture. If desired, serve with lime wedges.
- 2 Stellar Watermelon Recipes to Get Your Taste Buds Ready for Summer (organicauthority.com)
- Grilled Watermelon and Goat Cheese Salad (whipadish.com)
- Marinated Watermelon And Tomato-Cucumber Salad (watchhatchfly.com)
- Why Watermelon Water is the New Biggest Thing (shebudgets.com)