Olli Thomson

On Watermelons

Our neigbourhood store was on Skender Luarasi. I don’t know if that’s what the street was called back then, when I lived in Tirana, but that seems to be how it’s known now. It was just round the corner from my house on a nameless street, now called Rruga Liman Kaba. The store was owned by two brothers – we assumed they were brothers, they looked like brothers, but since they spoke no English and I spoke only a few words of Albanian there was no way to know for sure. It was a tiny place, no bigger than a room with a covered area out front for the fruit and veg. They sold a little of everything, not unlike the corner stores that dotted Belfast when I was growing up. I shopped there because it was convenient and I wanted to support them, but also because the fruit I got there tasted better than most of the fruit I had ever eaten up to that point.

Fruit was seasonal, picked when it was ready and sold as long as the season lasted. I never knew from one week to the next what would appear, or what would disappear. There were a few glorious weeks of peaches, or cherries or whatever happened to be in season and then they were gone. Often it looked a little rough, a little battered and bruised, and it probably wouldn’t have made it past quality control in Tesco or Sainsbury’s, but it tasted better than anything I could get at any supermarket.

Watermelons piled high in front of the store announced the arrival of one of Albania’s most popular fruits. I have seen claims that Albania has the highest watermelon consumption per capita in the world (though I saw this claim, unsourced, on the internet so feel free to take it with a pinch of salt). Certainly, they were abundant in the shops in Tirana during the season so people were clearly eating a lot. In the heat of an Albanian summer cool, wet, sweet, flavourful watermelon was blissful.

Meanwhile a Norwegian expat of my acquaintance was working with the Albanians to develop export markets for agricultural produce. It was a tough job. He told me about the many challenges of trying to set up the administrative structures and processes necessary to get Albanian products into the wider market of Western Europe, and of changing mindsets among Albanian producers and bureaucrats who didn’t understand why it had to be so complicated. But the problems weren’t all on the Albanian side.

My Norwegian friend saw the potential of watermelons as an export crop. They grew in abundance in Albania, they were a little more robust than some other fruit, they were delicious. But there was a problem. They had seeds. Western consumers had got used to ‘seedless’ watermelons, hybrids produced through a complex process, and so some Western consumers resisted the idea of a watermelon with seeds. Now, if both kinds tasted the same perhaps there might be some sense in choosing seedless over seeded (though spitting out the seeds is part of the fun of eating watermelon) but they don’t. The industrial agriculture that produced the hybrid watermelon has also produced the shelves full of beautiful but largely tasteless fruit and veg that stocks the shelves of Western supermarkets. So potential consumers given a choice of flavourful seeded watermelons or flavourless seedless chose to forgo flavour for the convenience of not having to remove a few seeds.

It’s been more that ten years since I lived in Albania but I was thinking of these things yesterday and today having bought a quarter watermelon at Whole Foods. It looks fine, it’s ‘seedless’, it tastes vaguely like watermelon, though mostly it just tastes wet. Yet, for many consumers, it seems, even seedless watermelon isn’t enough. Above the shelf with the watermelon quarters was another shelf lines with plastic cups of pre-sliced watermelon. At a generous estimate it may have contained the flesh of one sixteenth of a watermelon, but it was 30% more expensive that the unsliced quarter watermelon.

Who are these people, I wondered? Who are these people who apparently don’t have the time (or, perhaps, the skills) to slice up a watermelon? If you know anything of Whole Foods you might think you have your answer, but these plastic cups of pre-sliced fruit are everywhere, in every store. Granted, something like a mango or a pineapple requires a little more effort to slice so perhaps people feel its worth the extra, but a watermelon?

My parents’ were teenagers during the second world war and entered adulthood in the years of austerity and rationing that followed. The values of that war and post-war generation, my parents’ generation, have, to some extent, stuck with me, even though my life is more comfortable than they could ever have imagined. Perhaps choosing seedless over seeded watermelons or paying extra for sliced watermelon is a marker of how sophisticate we have become as consumers, but I can’t help thinking that ‘I don’t like seeds’, ‘I want it sliced’ sound like the exclamations of an overindulged child.

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