History of the cantaloupe
The term "cantaloupe" is actually somewhat confusing because it refers to two different varieties of melon (Cucumis melo). Both varieties came from an ancestor that is native to the North African region. This melon was cultivated in Egypt as early as 2400 BC and spread throughout the Middle East where many different varieties of melon were created.
"True" cantaloupes are labeled as Cucumis melo var. cantaloupensis. They are smooth like honeydew melons and originated from plants grown in the town of Cantaluppi in Italy. Rumor has it they were first grown there during the fifteenth century under orders from the Pope, who had read about melons in the Bible. A century later these cantaloupes became very popular in France and were a symbol of high society. Today this true cantaloupe is far more common in Europe than in the United States.
The variety of cantaloupe mainly grown in America is Cucumis melo var. reticulatus, which is really a kind of muskmelon. These melons are larger and not as smooth as the true cantaloupes. Instead they have a rough texture on their rinds called netting. This variety was originally grown in Spain in the 1500s and was transported to America by Columbus. The melon was very popular and was grown all along the Atlantic coast from Florida to New England. A marketing ploy was responsible for renaming the muskmelons as "cantaloupes" to remind buyers of the fancy French true cantaloupes. Today these cantaloupes are grown mainly in the dry regions of California, Texas, and Arizona. The rest of this writeup deals with these "fake" cantaloupes.
Cantaloupe plants and fruit
The cantaloupe plant is a long vine with large green leaves that grows along the ground. The vine prefers regions that have warm temperatures and dry climates. Melon seeds are generally planted in March and the ripe melons are harvested during the summer. The vines produce several small white-yellow flowers that only open one morning and close forever that afternoon. Pollinated flowers develop into tiny green melons that grow and turn creamy white over the course of several months. Each vine generally produces from one to six melons. The melons are easily harvested by snapping the melon off the vine.
The cantaloupe fruit is round or slightly oblong and ranges from four to eight inches in diameter. The rind is somewhat tough, cream white in color, and has a rough, net-like texture. Inside the melon is the edible fruit from the pericarp that is bright orange or yellow. The center of the melon is hollow and holds hundreds of tiny seeds. The flesh is extremely juicy and sweet and has a distinct floral fragrance.
In the United States cantaloupes are grouped into either Eastern or Western types depending on where they were grown. Eastern cantaloupes are sutured, meaning they have lines running from the stem end to the other end of the cantaloupe. They are somewhat larger, weighting 7 to 8 pounds, while the Western types are sutureless and smaller, weighing 3 to 4 pounds. The Eastern types mature later than the Western types and they have a shorter shelf life that makes them unsuitable for shipping long distances. Major cultivars of cantaloupe in the United States include Super 45, Laguna, Earlisweet, and Harper Hybrid.
Picking and eating cantaloupes
Cantaloupes can generally be found in most supermarkets year-round, however they are best when they are in season during the summer months. Since there are other, better writeups on how to pick ripe cantaloupes, I direct you to Wuukiee's writeup here as well as the How to choose fresh fruit node.
Cantaloupes can be stored at room temperature for several days to help soften the fruit. The melons can be stored for longer periods of time in the fridge. There is a bit of controversy on whether to eat cantaloupe at room temperature or chilled. I prefer eating the melon at ambient temperatures for the most melon fragrance and flavor. Cantaloupes are great eaten out of the rind, in fruit salads, or with a wrapping of fresh prosciutto.