There are actually two fruits commonly known as cantaloupe. Both are melons of the species Cucumis melo, but the two sub-species are actually different. One, the European variety Cucumis melo cantalupensis can be distinguished by its greenish skin — more the color of a honeydew melon than a North American cantaloupe. The North American variety, Cucumis melo melo, is also sometimes referred to as rock melon because of its rocky, reticulated rind, usually a pale tan color. The name is more commonly used for the North American variety, especially in the US.
The cantaloupe is a rough-skinned fruit, with a fairly soft, yet somewhat firm, flesh. This flesh is a pale orange color, and is one of the less-sweet melons, although still distinctly sugary. Some melon may appear to have a more yellow-colored fruit, but in general the flavor of this variety is less flavorful, and therefore less sought after.
Picking out a ripe, tasty cantaloupe is rather easy. Rather than knocking on the fruit, or shaking it vigorously, the easiest way to determine ripeness is simply to smell the fruit. A ripe, sweet cantaloupe will have a deep, sweet smell emanating from its rind, most especially up near where the stem was broken.
Cantaloupe is one of the most popular breakfast sides in the United States, due to its availability, affordability, relative sweetness, and health benefits. It contains a number of chemicals known to help bolster the immune system, as well as some which help reduce the risk of heart attacks. Also, while melons such as watermelon and even honeydew may seem excessively sweet and “dessert-like” to many people, cantaloupe is sweet enough to be desirable, while still feeling like a healthy food.
The cantaloupe has a fairly long history, having made a famous trek to the New World with Columbus on his second voyage. A number of Popes are also associated with the melon — Pope Innocent XIII reportedly enjoyed drinking his Port from one that had been carved out. Indeed, the name itself comes from the name of the town where the Papacy kept one of its summer residences — Cantalupo in Sabina.