Helen Moat discovers that sampling the legendary melons of the Peloponnese comes at a heavy cost
The melon was trouble. Right from the beginning.
As we headed down to the slipway at Mezapos harbour in the deep Mani, we had everything we needed for the perfect Greek lunch... except for a water melon. Perhaps it was the fierce heat; perhaps it was the barren, godforsaken Mani landscape devoid of any living thing, but a water melon suddenly seemed imperative to me.
The Mani in the Greek Peloponnese is one of the three 'fingers' that make up the most southernly points of mainland Greece. And indeed as we drove into the Mesa Mani, or 'deep' Mani, it felt like we'd reached the last place on earth. Story goes, when God had finished creating Earth, he had a few rocks left over. Not sure what to do with them, he chucked them into the Mani. As we drove along, we saw rows of drystone walls like Yorkshire – only these walls weren't enclosures: they'd been placed there by the local inhabitants who'd cleared the land to grow a few paltry vegetables or fruit.
Now I stood on the asphalt, gazing into the heat haze, as if a greengrocers would miraculously appear out of the shimmer like a mirage in the desert. But lo and behold, the miracle did appear – in the shape of a bedraggled farmer. He heralded his arrival, not in a chariot, but in a battered pick-up truck – and not with the sound of a trumpet, but with a fuzzy blast from his truck's loud-speaker, playing a tune that was something between a Greek folk song and the worst kind of Euro-pop. The pick-up was stacked high with fruit and vegetables and... melons.
"I've got to have a water melon!" I said to husband Tom.
We walked over to the pick-up. Tom eyed the melons doubtfully, looking like oversized rugby balls. "They're a bit big. It would take us days to eat one and it's not as if we've got somewhere to store them at the campsite."
The farmer squinted at us in the white sunlight, seeing a sale. I pointed at his watermelons.
"Pios?" he asked
I pointed to a smallest one, although it too was huge.
"Perhaps, we should buy some grapes instead," Tom murmered. But I'd made my mind up.
"Pente evro." The farmer said, handing over the melon, I cradled the fruit my arms, the size and weight of a small baby. As we walked on down towards the end of the slipway, I thought about what we'd paid for the melon.
"A bit steep, you're right."
"Tom, I think we've been fleeced by that Mani farmer."
"Well, you'd better enjoy that melon."
We squeezed onto on a concrete ledge, the only place on the slipway that was in the shade. I wedged the melon into one corner, delicately balancing it on a boulder. Across the bay I could see a great slab of rock, attached to the mainland by a thin strip of land, Tigani is called the 'frying pan', and at that moment, I could feel its heat across the bay.
Eating my lunch, I watched the fishermen in the harbour below, chilling out on the boat, their women folk swimming in the water beside them.They were a hardy group: broad featured with thick torsos and skins blackened and roughened by the relentless sun. Evliya Celebi, a 17th century Turkish travel writer described the Manis thus: T dark skinned, small in stature, with large heads, round eyes, with voices like sheepdogs... shoulder length thick black hair.
It seems a harsh description, but the Manis reputation goes before them – along with their strange stone towers that still rise from the wasteland today like miniature medieval Manhattens. The Manis built the towers to protect themselves from their neighbours, pulling up ladders behind them to keep themselves from harm, and in a nice neighbourly manner, poured hot oil or boiling water onto their foes below. Their male offspring were called 'guns' because their role in life was to feud and protect some tiny, stony patch of land.
As I ate my lunch, my melon toppled off the rock and started to roll down the slipway towards the water and the fisher folk. I jumped up and ran after it, but just as I reached it, the melon slowly tipped off the cement to land with a splash in the water.
I reached into the water, but at that moment there was a swell, battering the melon momentarily before pulling it away from me and out into the water. The melon had now split in two, with small broken off lumps bobbing up and down in the water. The two Mani women sprang into action, swimming after the two bigger halves while battling the swell. Eventually they captured the melon pieces and climbed ashore with them. We offered the women one of the halves, but they shook their heads, instead offering us some of their catch. It seemed these tough, fierce Manis had kind hearts.
Tom used half of our precious water to wash the salt of the melon and we started the mamouth task of munching our way through the fruit. By the third day, there was still some left, now nicely fermenting in the Mani heat, even in the shade of the campsite olive trees.
The melon was trouble. Right to the end.
Helen Moat has won several travel writing competitions, including runner-up x 2 with The British Guild of Travel Writers and highly commended in the BBC Wildlife Travel Writing competition. She is currently writing the Slow Travel: Peak District for Bradt Guides.You can find more of her travel pieces on her blog.