Before you start, no, it’s not a spelling mistake – it’s mellone, not melone. In Sicily, mellone with a double “l” means watermelon, especially in the western part of the island (although muluni is another dialect form). Elsewhere in Italy (and in Sicily too if you’re not speaking dialect) they call it anguria or cocomero. Everywhere, Sicily included, melone with one “l”is used for other types of melon. Ok, sufficiently confused? With that out of the way, we can get down to the important questions: what is it, how do I make it, and is it any good?
This is another one of those Sicilian dishes with a distinctly Arabian twist, and may in fact date back to the pre-Norman period of Arab domination in western Sicily. The secondary ingredients (rosewater, jasmine, cinnamon and pistachios) would support this ancestry, as would the fact that the main event, the watermelon itself, was introduced into Europe by the Moors, with records of its use in Spain as far back as the 10th century.
Although you can find gelo all over the island, it’s particularly common in the west, and particularly in Palermo, where it’s associated with the feast day of the city’s patron saint, St. Rosalia (14 August), and Ferragosto (15 August, when Catholics celebrate the Assumption of Mary). The middle of August coincides, unsurprisingly, with the time when watermelons are at their best. Cooking anything in the mid-August Sicilian heat is an act of madness, but the result is one of the best ways I know to wrap up a summer dinner – cooling, refreshing, fruity and delicately spiced.
With something so simple, the quality of the raw materials is crucial, so make sure your watermelon is as ripe and deeply red as possible.
The recipe below is based on 1 litre of watermelon juice (you won’t know exactly how much juice you have until you’ve cleaned, mashed and sieved your watermelon, so scale up or down as required). This amount of juice should yield about ten small servings; I used small 150-ml bowls filled to within about half a centimetre of the rim, but obviously serve in larger portions if you prefer.
Anyway, to get 1 litre of juice, you’ll need a rindless slice of watermelon of about 1.5 kg. The same slice with the rind still on will weigh about half as much again (say 2.3 kg). To simplify matters, I work by the rule of thumb that a piece of rind-on watermelon of any given weight should yield about a third of that weight in juice. This provides a generous margin of error and also means that I’ll have some watermelon flesh/juice left over to eat/drink. So if I want to make 15 portions, I’ll need 1.5 litres of juice, which means a watermelon slice weighing 4.5 kg. That might sound like a lot for a slice, but whole watermelons often come in at around 10 kg.
If you want to add a floral touch, for each litre add 2-3 tablespoons of jasmine infusion (leave 50g of flowers to infuse in 100 ml of water for 24 hours, then strain), or rosewater to the mix. I’ll be honest, this is probably the best way to make it, but on this occasion I didn’t have time to do the infusion and had no rosewater handy, hence the basic recipe below. In any case, the basic recipe is itself sublime, so don’t worry if you don’t have jasmine or rose.
As you can see from the photo, I prefer the unadulterated version, decorated with a single jasmine flower. If the watermelon is ripe and tasty, any other garnish is a distraction, the way I see it. But I know that chocolate and pistachios are the most common toppings, so I mention them here despite not being convinced of their necessity. If I had to choose between the two, chocolate (which although common is definitely not traditional) would win – but it should be good quality and dark (at least 70% cocoa), so that its intensity and bitterness counterpoint the smooth sweetness of the gelo.
Makes 10 individual portions
- 1 litre watermelon juice
- 80 g corn starch
- 120 g sugar
- good pinch of cinnamon, to taste
- jasmine flowers and/or grated dark chocolate and/or chopped unsalted pistachios to finish
- Remove the rind from the watermelon and cut the flesh into largish chunks. A batch at a time, mash the flesh with a potato masher in a flat-bottomed bowl or other container, then drain the juice obtained through a sieve into a saucepan (stainless steel, not non-stick).
- Using scales, measuring jugs or whatever method you prefer, see how much juice you have obtained and then adjust the amount of the other ingredients as necessary, using the proportions listed above.
- Once you’ve measured your juice, pour it back into the saucepan and add the corn starch and sugar. Mix well (I used a whisk) and begin to heat on a low heat, stirring constantly with a large metal spoon. You could use a non-stick saucepan and a wooden spoon, but a wooden spoon just feels wrong here.
- As the liquid heats, add a good pinch of cinnamon to taste.
- Continue to stir and scrape the pan constantly to avoid the formation of lumps. The process will seem interminable. Resist temptation to throw spoon at wall and give in. Suddenly, as if by magic, the liquid will start to thicken and become velvety. Continue to cook and stir for another couple of minutes until achieving the consistency of a pouring sauce that’s thick enough to coat (think butterscotch). Remember this will thicken up considerably and solidify during cooling. The longer you leave it to cook, the thicker the final result. I like it set, but velvety, rather than something you could cut with a knife.
- Take off heat, and leave to cool for five minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Ladle into small individual serving bowls and garnish with jasmine flowers/chocolate flakes/chopped unsalted pistachios.
- Place on tray in fridge until well set (at least 12 hours).