THE FRENCH TRADITION of serving halved melon with a shot of Port poured into its center makes for funny math: The result far surpasses the sum of its two ingredients. The cool, crisp, sweet, slightly acidic melon sings summer in all its bright immediacy, while the Port conjures the complexity of time and wine. The fruit takes on a bit of depth, the Port kicks up its heels.
The key is to chill the melon well and only remove it from the fridge a moment or two before serving. Don’t be tempted to add the liquor early: Wait until the last minute, or the alcohol will break down the natural firmness of the melon. What you want is a bit of melon and a bit of Port in each bite—not macerated fruit.
Melon au port was originally served as an appetizer, but now, as menus have become less elaborate and desserts less sweet, it is most often served at the end of a meal. It also makes a great vacation lunch, particularly with the Mediterranean in view and a nap on the agenda.
The success of the dish lies largely in finding optimally ripe, flavorful fruit. The Cavaillon and Charentais varieties are ideal, but their season is fleeting. A desire to spike melons through the summer led me to test several pairings, the best of which I’ve included here. At the farmers market I discovered previously untried heirloom varieties and hybrids with surprising complexity of flavor. If possible, search out such beauties as Snow Leopards (pale but deeply honeyed) and Serenades (rich notes of butterscotch).
Green melons, such as honeydews, lend themselves to the bubbles of a dry Prosecco, the clarity of vodka or the sweet fire of white rum. Anise, the predominant note in Sambuca, gives in-season watermelon a lasting chord of resonance; mixed with tequila, Cointreau’s familiar orangy note makes an edible cocktail of the same melon. Indeed, a whirl in the blender turns any of these concoctions into a summery drink. But for me, part of the fun of melon is biting into its cool flesh and feeling the initial crunch give way to a spurt of juice. Spike that and you double the fun.
If you can’t find small melons, simply arrange slices on a platter and drizzle liberally with the spirit of your choice. For garnishes, a grating of lemon or lime zest on the honeydews or watermelons works nicely; a faint grinding of pink peppercorns on the Charentais draws out the flavors of the Port.
Active Time 5 minutes Total Time 2 hours (includes chilling) Serves 4
- 2 Charentais, Cavaillon, Savor, Sugar Cube, Serenade or other melons similar to cantaloupe
- 1 cup ruby Port
- 2 Honeydews, Snow Leopards, Honey Whites, Diplomats or Honey Oranges
- 1 cup Prosecco, Champagne, Cava, white rum or gin
- 2 baby seedless watermelons
- 1 cup vodka, Sambuca, Cachaca or a mix of silver tequila and Cointreau
1. Refrigerate melons at least 2 hours before serving. Minutes before you are to serve them, wash melons and halve horizontally. Scoop out seeds.
2. Add ¼ cup spirits to the carved-out center of each melon half. Serve immediately. To prepare in advance, you may cut and seed the melons, cover in plastic wrap and return to refrigerator until ready to use. Do not add alcohol until the last minute.