The sweet taste of success

Nick Dowling (from left), Tim Wertz, Chad Carter and Scott Blackwell, co-owner of High Wire Distillery, squeeze the juice out of heritage watermelons grown by Nat Bradford to make a 19th-century-style brandy.

For 170 years, the care and cultivation of Bradford watermelons was mostly a matter of protecting patches from marauding fruit thieves; carefully monitoring melons for ripeness and saving seeds from the exemplars to plant in future years. But last week, Nat Bradford hauled 270 ancestral watermelons from Sumter to Charleston with an eye toward the cultivar's upkeep.

"We're trying to see what all we can get out of one melon, instead of just eating it and throwing away the rind," Bradford says.

With help from High Wire Distilling Co. and the Culinary Institute of Charleston, Bradford and his 13-year old son, Theron, squeezed (and pried, chopped and pickled) about $300 in value out of a melon that typically sells for 20 bucks.

The Bradfords aren't looking to get rich off the watermelon that's belonged to their family for eight generations: A significant portion of the profits are earmarked for Watermelons for Water, a charity Bradford created to bring clean water to developing countries. "We're doing it in the name of Christ," says Bradford, a deeply religious man who came across his cause when a pastor mentioned how many children were dying in Africa from waterborne diseases.

Yet it's not just churchgoers who have made belief the central theme of the Bradford watermelon's story. It took a Revolutionary War soldier's belief in the supremacy of a watermelon seed, University of South Carolina professor David Shields' belief that Bradford was farming "the real deal" and Anson Mills founder Glenn Roberts' belief that the melon should be experienced in South Carolina to help connect local eaters with a watermelon considered one of the best-tasting watermelons in the world.

The backstory of the Bradford watermelon was entertainingly told in an animated segment of the Emmy-award winning "Mind of a Chef" program, which last year was co-hosted by Sean Brock. Narrated by Shields, the vignette explains how W.B. Lawson, a military officer in the Revolutionary War, was given a wedge of watermelon by a Scottish captain aboard a prison ship. While captives probably savored any hydrating snack, Lawson was certain that he had never encountered a finer watermelon. He spirited the distinctively white seeds back to Georgia, where they blossomed into exceptionally sweet watermelons.

Watermelon breeding isn't a sport for the reckless. Because watermelons are promiscuous - they'll gladly cross with any nearby pumpkin or squash - the risk of seed contamination is high. "You have to keep it a mile apart" from other plants, Shields says, or you'll end up with "vegetable mongrels."

Lawson was a careful guard. "The particular variety was preserved pure owing to no other melon to be grown in the same place," his grandson John F. Lawson in 1883 told newspaper reporters. In the 1840s, Bradford crossed pristine Lawson seeds with seeds from a Mountain Sweet watermelon to produce his namesake melon. The Bradford watermelon quickly acquired a reputation as the South's greatest watermelon.

"If you had a Bradford, you took measures to protect it," Shields says. Those measures, according to Shields, included guns, electrocution and poison.

But the Bradford's ultimate disappearance from the market didn't have anything to do with melon-stealing scoundrels. Its thin skin wasn't suitable for long-distance shipping, and its funny elongated shape - Bradford compares it to an overgrown cucumber - made it difficult to stack. A relic of the pre-industrial age, the Bradford watermelon was last planted commercially in 1922.

The Bradfords, though, never stopped planting the watermelon. The phenomenally fragrant red flesh, which tastes crisp and clean, had a hold on them. And they liked the pickles made from the melon's tender rind.

In 1997, Bradford found a reference to the splendor of Bradford watermelons in an 1850s horticulture guide. He wasn't sure if those Bradfords were the same as his family's Bradfords, but after attending a sustainable agriculture conference in 2012, he decided to find out. He e-mailed Shields about his inheritance.

Shields evaluated the watermelon, and declared it a direct descendant of the Bradford, which food historians had figured was forever lost. He arranged for Bradford to meet with Roberts, who persuaded him not to send his melons to an Alabama brewery that had promised to turn them into beer, and he led the charge to induct the Bradford watermelon into Slow Food USA's Ark of Taste, a global list of "delicious and distinctive foods facing extinction."

With the support of Shields and Roberts, Bradford last year shared his harvest with Charleston chefs, who made watermelon molasses, watermelon pickles and watermelon cocktails. This year, the goal was to create a range of transportable products with staying power.

North Carolina's April McGreger, the preserver behind the Farmer's Daughter brand, received a batch of Bradfords to transform into sweet pickles, sour pickles, salted watermelon jam and watermelon jam with chile and lime. The items will be sold online later this month, and at Slow Food's Salone del Gusto in October, marking the first time a U.S. product has been offered at what's billed as "the world's largest food and wine fair." But the bulk of Bradford's first 2014 harvest came here.

The melons' first Charleston stop was High Wire Distilling Co., where a crew of workers and curious volunteers extracted juice for brandy by jamming hunks of watermelon through screens balanced atop plastic tubs. "It's messy," co-owner Scott Blackwell conceded. The procedure also was painfully slow: It took nearly 12 hours before there was enough juice in the mash tub to approach the designated fill line. Nothing else was added but yeast.

"A lot of the brandies I had growing up around here were peach, so they had sugar added," says Blackwell, who was idly considering the category when Shields approached him, explaining Bradford brandy was a once-coveted Southeast spirit. "With this, I can already imagine it when I eat the watermelon, when you get that top-end essence."

The brandy is scheduled for release in October.

High Wire reserved all of the watermelon rinds for the Culinary Institute of Charleston, which the following day lent its kitchen and faculty to the pickle-making process. An assembly line of professionals, augmented by Nat and Theron Bradford, medium-diced enough rinds to fill 1,000 pint jars.

"It's kind of transporting myself back to being a lowly cook, just putting my head down," said chef instructor Scott Stefanelli.

But the project that transfixed Nat Bradford was the potential creation of Kalahari oil, an ancient oil made by pressing watermelon seeds (Roberts evidently has a press.) Bradford meticulously collected as many seeds as he could, scraping them off the screens at High Wire and disentangling them from vestigial pulp. The instincts forged by generations of seed-saving are hard to shake: After leaving the distillery on brandy-making day, Bradford stayed up until two in the morning, washing seeds clean.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560 or