Carosello Barese – The Italian Cucumber/Melon Story
Two years ago this month I wrote my first blog post for The Local Beet. The story I wrote was about my move to Dahinda, Illinois from the Chicago Suburbs and some of the seeds that I had saved and took with me to the farm that I now call home. One of the seeds was one of the first vegetable seeds that I ever tried to save from year to year. This was the seed to something called an “Italian Cucumber” and I would like to expand on what I wrote back then about it.
This Italian cucumber was grown by the old school Italian gardeners in the town that I grew up in, Franklin Park (near O’Hare), as well as the surrounding suburbs with a sizable population of Italian descent like Melrose Park, Northlake, and Leyden Township. The Italian cucumber, as it was called, was an odd sort of cucumber with thin fuzzy skin and a mild and never bitter taste.
I saved the seeds of this variety because the old gardeners that I got my original seeds from saved them themselves, as they were not available commercially. They brought them over from Sicily or Puglia or one of many other regions of Italy whence they came. Many of these gardeners used old practices to improve soil, cultivate crops, and in pest management that today we call “sustainable.” Some of them used old implements that looked as though they were created by a village blacksmith and were certainly not bought at the Franklin Park K Mart!
These gardeners valued the seeds that they had brought over and guarded them like they were trade secrets. Only after a lot of persistence and continuously asking a friend, whose dad was one of these gardeners, was I able to get any of these seeds and then I received only like three seeds! I started to save them because I liked this Italian cucumber and I didn’t want to hit them up for seeds year after year. Also, I liked the fact that I was growing something unique that had history behind it and was not just the run of the mill crop that every gardener was growing and wanted to keep that connection.
I had saved the seeds for a few years and, as an 11 or 12 year old (as I was at the time) is not the most responsible person, I lost the seeds along the way. As time went on I did not really get the opportunity to get any replacements. Years later I thought about how good those Italian cucumbers were and now that the internet was around, surely I would be able to find somebody who had them. Who I found was Bill McKay, former owner of a company called Seeds from Italy. Bill had a similar problem once and he found a solution.
By luck, he happened upon Franchi Seeds, Italy’s oldest family-owned seed company. Franchi didn’t have an agent in this country, so Bill became their agent and started Seeds from Italy. He began to import their seeds and repackage them for the American market. For a decade or so, Seeds from Italy grew rapidly under Bill’s ownership. I found Bill and emailed him. I explained the problem that I had and he emailed me back asking me to call him.
He asked me to describe these “Italian Cucumbers” as I called them. I did and he said that they were actually “cucumber/melons,” which are a popular garden vegetable in Italy. Franchi Seeds had several varieties, long, round etc. The variety that I remember turned out to be Carosello Barese, which are light green, oval, mild tasting and grow on very productive plants.
Bill McKay later retired from running Seeds from Italy and sold the business in 2011 to Dan Nagengast, a long-time market gardener in Lawrence, Kansas. In addition to growing vegetables and flowers for local markets, Dan was director of the Kansas Rural Center, a nonprofit that advocates for sustainable agriculture and family farms. Dan’s wife is Lynn Byczynski, the founder and publisher of Growing for Market, a national periodical for market farmers, as well as the author of several books. Seeds from Italy is still offering Franchi Seeds as well as several other imported Italian brands.
I contacted Dan and he said that the botanical name for the Carosellos is Cucumis Adzhur. Dan said it “originated in Asia Minor, also cultivated in N. Africa (esp. Egypt, where prob. in cultivation as a vegetable since ancient times), Syria, Israel, and (as a last relic of former wider cultivation in Europe) in S. Italy. The young, week-old fruits are used as cucumbers. Between the two World Wars they were on sale, for example, in all the markets in Anatolia, but are now being rapidly displaced by Cucumis sativus cultivars, and the area of cultivation is fast decreasing.”Another couple of varieties, the Tortarellos, “are Cucumis flexuosusis similar to an Armenian cucumber.”
The cucumber/melon is really a type of melon but the fruit tastes like a cucumber and is used like a cucumber. The fruit has crispy white flesh and is easier to digest than true cucumbers. It is bitter free and harvested when they are about four inches long and still green. Some people are put off by the downy fuzz on the skin but that washes off quite easily. The skin itself is so thin as to be nonexistent and can be eaten with the rest of the fruit. In Italy it is served raw in salads that accompany pasta dishes.
Seeds for the Cucumber/Melon are available where ever there are old Southern Italian gardeners doing what they have been doing for centuries. Otherwise they are available from Seeds from Italy.