Noir des Carmes: Treasured Melon Of France

It is commonly accepted that this olive-black melon got its name from the Carmelite monks who tended it in monastery gardens of France in the 1700s. But befitting this elegant variety, the story is more nuanced.

Noir des Carmes is one of the oldest French cantaloupes. And before it became indelibly associated with the monks of Convent of the Carmes in Paris, it was known by another name. “Cantaloup Sucrin de Montreuil” was a tribute to the melon’s sublime sweetness and the verdant agricultural center of Montreuil, where it grew.

Is it possible that “Noir des Carmes” might also have been a nickname earned at the city’s famous produce markets?

The melon was a favorite among the “maraichers” — the vegetable growers of Paris’ green belt — because it ripened early and was sure to bring them “carme” — their slang word for money. The term also meant “white bread” and was derived from the color of the immaculate white undergarments worn by Carmelite monks. 

Melons, which are native to northeastern Africa and the Middle East, have been grown in Europe for centuries. Several varieties were developed in Italy and then France in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Renaissance painter Raphael Sanzio included melons in his famous frescoes at Villa Farnasina in Rome in the early 16th century, many of them split open — a sure sign of their sweetness, and still prized at farmers markets today.

Some historians suggest melons were growing in France before that. King Charles VIII is thought to have brought seeds back from Rome in the late 15th century. Others believe it’s possible that they arrived in France even earlier, since Pope Clement V had moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon, France in the 14th century and melons grew abundantly in papal gardens.

The special connection between Carmelites and the melons may also hearken back to biblical times.

Entrance to the Cave of Elijah site. (Shutterstock image)

According to Hebrew legend, when the prophet Elijah retreated to a cave on Mount Carmel, he relied on God to provide him with food and water. One day, he spotted a garden covered with many round melons. He asked the grower for some to quench his thirst, but the man laughed at him, telling him they were stones. In frustration, Elijah cursed him and turned the melons into real stones. 

Hundreds of years later, in the 12th century, groups of religious hermits began living in the caves. They would become “The Brothers Of Our Lady Of Mount Carmel”  —  or Carmelites. In 1631, Carmelites built a monastery near the site and lived there until Zahir al-Umar, the ruler of Galilee, forced them out in 1761.  They rebuilt, near “the Garden of the Melons,” directly above the cave where Elijah was thought to have lived.

Though there is no record of it, it is possible that monks of the Carmelite convent in Paris bred this variety in their lush gardens, since they belonged to the same Catholic order. At the French Revolution in 1789, the convent was turned into a prison. Could seeds of the Noir des Carmes have escaped the ordeal?

By the late 18th century, descriptions of melons start turning up in gardening books, including John Abercrombie’s Every Man His Own Gardener, published in 1767. 

The Vilmorin Andrieux seed catalog of 1883 describes the Noir des Carmes as a vigorous, easy-to-grow melon that ripens early. They recommended seeding on heated mats as early as January and then transplanting them in hot beds under glass about four weeks later. In late March, the melons would be planted in raised beds heated with manure. The stems would then be pruned above the second leaf in order to obtain two laterals that would be allowed to grow up to the eighth leaf and then be pruned above the sixth leaves in order to trigger fertile flowers. Only one set of fruit would then be kept per each lateral, meaning two fruits per plant. As the fruits grew, a bunch of clean straw or a small plank of wood would be placed under each one to keep it clean and dry until harvest in early May. 

Home gardening these melons doesn’t have to require such fussing, so long as they’re kept nice and warm and planted outdoors well after the danger of frost has passed.