On The Trail Of The Alphonso, The Star Of Indian Summer

During its brief season in the Indian summer, the obsession around the Alphonso is at par with Bollywood and cricket. With more than 1,000 varieties available in the market, Alphonso remains undefeated as the king
The mango season stretches from April to July
The mango season stretches from April to July Shutterstock.com

Several summers back, I had hired a car from Mumbai, hitting the road to Ratnagiri and Devgad, on the trail of the famed Alphonso mango. If you go by local lore, there are mangoes, and then there is the Alphonso. Or, as it is locally known, the hapus. Loyalists swear by its rich, creamy smoothness (without a hint of fibre) and subtle notes of sweetness. It is a deep orange, almost saffron color and tastes phenomenal.

During its brief season in the Indian summer, the obsession around the Alphonso is at par with Bollywood and cricket. Mothers send petis (cartons) to married daughters' homes to sweeten up the in-laws. Hot afternoons are punctuated by cries of "haaapuuus" floating through open windows. Markets seem to take on the bright red and yellow hue of piled-up Alphonso mangoes. Restaurants serve every kind of dish, as the mango&rsquos smooth flesh and honeyed flavor lend itself to a variety of sweet and savory dishes and drinks. People go into overdrive making things that help preserve their precious Alphonso stock for the rest of the year—ambapoli/aam papad (mango fruit leather) amboli (sweet dried mango used in curries) aam ras aamrakhand (mango shrikhand), and more.

The mango season in India stretches from April to July, and of the more than 1,000 varieties that hit the markets, the much-coveted Alphonso is king. The ones most in demand are those from Ratnagiri, Sindhudurg, and adjoining areas in Maharashtra. They are considered to be the best and acquired a GI tag in October 2018.

Of the more than 1,000 varieties that hit the markets, the much-coveted Alphonso is king
Of the more than 1,000 varieties that hit the markets, the much-coveted Alphonso is kingShutterstock.com

Everyone Loves The King

The Alphonso mango has a string of legends attached to them. Some are related to India's first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who had decreed that only Alphonso mangoes were to be gifted to foreign VIPs. In 1961, at a historic meet with JF Kennedy, the then Indian ambassador BK Nehru had laid out a sumptuous meal where the central attraction was the dessert kheer with Alphonso mangoes.

In 1953, Alphonso mangoes were sent to London for the Queen's coronation. The crates were picked from Mumbai's legendary Crawford Market, which is the central hub for Alphonsos in the summer. The mango has also played a part in trade and diplomatic ties. In 2007, a Forbes report raved about the arrival of the mango in the US, "After years of diplomatic manoeuvring, the gourmet stars of India's summers have finally made their way to American shores." The story explained how India had been working to export mangoes to the US since 1988, but Washington had hesitated over concerns about fruit flies and other pests. President George W. Bush had agreed to lift the ban reportedly in return for the export of Harley-Davidson motorcycles to India.

The mangoes were a hit in the US. The New York Times reported that people had been calling local grocers all day long, asking when the fruits would be available in markets and stores. After tasting an Alphonso, a Washington Post reporter wrote "These are mangoes worth waiting for." The paper reported that "Despite a price tag five times that of the ubiquitous mangoes from Central and South America, the supplies of this luscious variety, not previously available in the United States, quickly vanished..." Other varieties were priced at USD 6.99 for 12, the papers said, but when the Alphonso arrived, priced at USD 35 per case, customers had snapped them up.

Forget cricket scores, even in India, Alphonso prices are the numbers to watch in the summer. 

Inside Crawford Market in Mumbai
Inside Crawford Market in MumbaiShutterstock.com

In Mango Land

My journey across the narrow strip of land on the Konkan coast that produces the GI-tagged Alphonso revealed the celebrity status enjoyed by this distinguished fruit. During mango season, people in the region bask in its reflected glory courting the media, tourists, and assorted visitors.

Mango farmers like to explain what makes the Alphonso grown in this region special. It is the pollution-free air, red earth (loaded with laterite), moisture content, and pH quality of the dew that settles on the mangoes as they slowly ripen. The hill slopes and proximity to the coast where drainage is assured are also ideal for cultivation.

Several sleepy villages along the Konkan coast are home to some of the largest mango exporters in the region. I had visited the Desai brothers in Pawas village, Ratnagiri, to find out more about their history of mango cultivation. "We are fifth-generation farmers," they had said with pride. &ldquoOur grandfather used to take crates of mangoes to Karachi in a steamer to sell in the markets. In those days, people called us sabziwalas.&rdquo

The brothers were armed with relevant degrees—Amar had a Masters in Post-Harvest Food Process Engineering and Anand had a BSc in Horticulture. Their mangoes were exported to countries like Japan, the US, Singapore, and Australia after a long process of decontamination.

In the half-light of dusk, Amar had pointed out a structure on a cliff across the sea—it was a power plant that was coming up in the region. "If these go through, the delicate balance of the climate here will change, and our mangoes will be impacted."

On a visit to their sprawling farm, I had come across locals plucking ripe mangoes off trees and packing them into crates to ship to markets. Elsewhere, rows of just-planted mango grafts were being prepped for the next season. The Portuguese introduced grafting on mango trees to produce extraordinary varieties like the Alphonso. In fact, Alphonso is named after Alfonso de Albuquerque—a Portuguese nobleman known to have established the Portuguese colony in India.

In Nate village, I visited an organic farm where the mangoes were ripened naturally, nourished by organic fertilizers and pesticides that were made with extracts of different plants and herbs. "Most people have never tasted a real hapus," the owner had said when I had asked if Alphonsos really deserved all the hype. "Merey dadaji kehtey they ki Victoria raani ko yahan ka haapus khilaya gaya tha (my grandfather said that even Queen Victoria was gifted Alphonso mangoes from this region)."

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