by Ed Halmagyi


Why is it that Ancient Egypt still holds such a deep modern fascination for us? It’s not just the regal sphinx, or the complex hieroglyphic language they developed. In essence, we mostly just want to know: how did they build those pyramids?

Given the size of the rocks, I’d suggest it was on a full stomach! But what did the ancients actually eat? There was goat and lamb, fish and wild birds. Cassava, spelt and barley were popular, and there were always doum fruit and dates to be had. But another food was integral in the African diet: watermelon.

When Howard Carter prised open the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings in 1922 he found, in addition to the golden masks and sublime sarcophagi, desiccated 3000 year-old watermelon seeds scattered across the mausoleum’s floor. The builders, it seems, were rather partial to a mid-afternoon melon break. It was the Pharaonic equivalent of our cafe latte, if you will.

Watermelon is the ideal treat for hot desert climes, or even for a burgeoning Sydney Spring. It is nearly 92% water, making it very refreshing, and is reasonably rich in vitamins A, C and B6. Throughout Africa, the traditional melon cultivars grew wild and were commonplace, meaning that their short shelf-life after picking was not an issue. In the modern age, however, we have had to rely on cross-breeding to provide us with a transportable melon that will not wither and sour before it reaches the table.

The 18th century African slave trade had brought melons to North America, and it was there, in Charleston South Carolina on the fringes of a tobacco field, that a mutant melon first appeared with genuine longevity. Nearly every melon we eat today owes some of its genetic heritage to that first Charleston Grey.

To pick a great melon, look for its shade-spot. This is a roundish pale patch on one side of the fruit. This is the point of the melon that was resting on the ground throughout its growth. The larger the shade-spot, the longer that melon ripened gracefully in the sun, and the sweeter and richer its flavour will be as a result. Pick a good one and you’ll be building pyramids in no time!
Melon salad with red gum honey sabayon and greek yoghurt

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