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Nitsa watermelons are moderately sized, round to oval fruits, ranging from 11 to 22 pounds. The dark green rind is smooth, thick, and firm, covered in mottled, light green striping. Underneath the surface, the portion of the rind that connects to the flesh is pale green to white and is crunchy with a vegetal flavor. The red flesh is aqueous and dense with a granular consistency, encasing many small and rough, black-brown seeds. Nitsa watermelons have a high sugar content emitting a sweet, subtly fruity flavor.
Nitsa watermelons are available in the summer in Central Asia and select regions of Europe.
Nitsa watermelons, botanically classified as Citrullus lanatus, are one of the most popular early-maturing varieties grown in Central Asia. Also, sometimes known as Nice or Nica watermelons, the official name, Nitsa, was created from a combination of Russian words and sounds and was not named after the city in France. Watermelons are grown throughout Central Asia, especially in Uzbekistan, Russia, and Kazakhstan, and are an essential source of fluids in arid desert regions. Throughout the summer, roadside stands, street vendors, and pop-up stalls appear to sell the abundant harvest, and watermelons are highly regarded in Central Asia as a cleansing snack to purify the body. In addition to markets, watermelon varieties such as Nitsa are also frequently planted in dachas, or family homestead gardens, as the fruits are favored for their high yields, sweet flavor, and extended storage capabilities.
Nitsa watermelons are an excellent source of vitamins A and C, which are antioxidants that can boost the immune system and increase collagen production within the skin. The fruits also contain lycopene, which is an antioxidant that gives the flesh its red hue and helps fight against free radicals within the body.
Nitsa watermelons are best suited for raw preparations as their sweet, juicy flesh is showcased when consumed fresh, out-of-hand. The flesh can be sliced, cubed, or balled and served with bread as a snack, tossed into fruit bowls and green salads, or layered on appetizer plates with berries, meats, and cheeses. The flesh can also be blended with ice, juiced and frozen into popsicles, mixed into smoothies, incorporated into cocktails, or used to make specialty beers. In addition to fresh preparations, Nitsa watermelons are commonly dried, pickled, or boiled into a syrup for extended use during the harsh winter months in Russia. Known as nardek, watermelon juice is reduced multiple times into a thick syrup and is used in pastries, cakes, pies, and as a condiment. Nitsa watermelons pair well with berries such as strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries, other fruits such as peaches, coconut, and citrus, herbs such as mint, basil, and cilantro, and spices such as ginger, dill, and cayenne. Whole Nitsa melons can be stored at room temperature for 1-2 weeks or refrigerated for 2-3 weeks. Once cut, the slices should be kept in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to five days.
In Southern Russia, the Astrakhan Watermelon Festival is an annual summer event that highlights the importance of watermelon cultivation in the Astrakhan region. The festival holds different competitions using numerous varieties such as the Nitsa to celebrate the diversity among watermelons. Events at the festival include watermelon speed eating, decorative carving, and a watermelon outfit contest, and many vendors sell watermelon-inspired food dishes, beverages, and household goods throughout the event. The All-Russian Research Institute of Irrigated Vegetable Growing and Melon Growing (VNIIOB) also participates in the festival by allowing visitors to sample experimental watermelon varieties with improved appearances and flavors.
There is some debate around the origins of the Nitsa watermelon. One theory was written in a gardening book by Russian author Nikolai Ivanovich, who claimed the variety was first grown in Uzbekistan in the 1980s. Other experts allude to the variety being developed in Krasnodar, Russia, in the early 2000s. Despite its muddled history, Nitsa watermelons are a cross between the varieties Crimson Sweet and Monastyrskiy and are cultivated throughout Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. The Nitsa watermelons featured in the photograph above were grown in the Chardara region of Southern Kazakhstan and were purchased at a local market in Almaty.