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On the trail of the King of Mangoes in Ratnagiri
A visit to Alphonso mango farms on the western coast of India confirms that a mango is never just a mango
"Have you come about mangoes?” asks a man before I am fully out of my car. It’s uncanny how everyone in this town seems to anticipate that my presence has something to do with the fruit.
I am in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra, home to the Alphonso mango -- also known as the King of Indian mangoes.
From March to July, India produces more than 1,000 varieties of mango. But none of them are as desirable as the Alphonso. Loyalists swear by its rich creaminess. The flesh is saffron-colored and without a hint of fiber. The taste is exquisitely sweet, with none of the tartness or coyness of its cousins.
Every summer, before the monsoon season, India goes mad for the Alphonso. The national obsession is on par with Bollywood and cricket. Hot afternoons are punctuated by cries of "Haaapuuus!" floating through open windows. "Hapus," pronounced with a silent "h," is how the mango is locally known.
Mothers send cartons of hapus to their married daughters’ homes to sweeten up the in-laws. Couriers, like DHL, start a special "Mango Express" service to deliver Alphonsos. Newspapers begin a series of anxiety-ridden articles about the health of the crop.
Also on CNNGo: Mumbai mango compendium
Such mango mania serves to make the Alphonso one of the most expensive mangoes. During peak season in Mumbai, people think nothing of forking out as much as Rs 1,000 (US$18) for a dozen.
People used to call us sabziwalas. Now we have status.
Amar Desai, Alphonso mango exporter
The mango bubble recently burst when prices crashed to as low as Rs 1000 for four dozen. There's never been a better time to eat Alphonso.
I made sure my pockets were amply lined before embarking on a trip to the fruit's home, the narrow strip of land on the Konkan coast that can accurately claim to produce genuine Alphonsos.
The Ratnagiri, Sindhudurg and Raigad districts of Maharashtra together have around 130,000 hectares dedicated to Alphonso cultivation. Almost everyone I spoke with in the region claims to have at least one Alphonso tree in their backyard or some family involved in the business of cultivating mangoes.
Mangoes grown in Ratnagiri district, the largest producer, carry the geographical indication (GI) tag and are the official mangoes given as state gifts to visiting VIPs.
Threat of power plants
From Mumbai, I drive a rented car to the sleepy village of Pawas, 30 minutes from Ratnagiri town and home to the Desai brothers Amar and Anand. They are among the larger exporters of Alphonsos in the region.
“We are fifth-generation farmers," says Amar Desai, the elder of the two brothers. "Our grandfather started it all. He used to take crates of mangoes to Karachi to sell in the markets there.
“In those days, people called us sabziwalas (fruit and vegetable sellers). Now we have some status.”
With their BlackBerries, sleek cars and suave manners, the Desai brothers look more ready for the corporate boardroom than the farm.
Amar tells me how his father (probably fed up of being called a sabziwala), had considered a potentially disastrous detour towards a career in commerce. But luckily he stayed with mangoes.
Today, the Desai brothers own 240 hectares of orchard sprawling over the Ratnagiri hills, with 10,000 trees churning out truckloads of Alphonso each year.
Their mangoes are exported to Japan, the United States, Singapore and Australia after a long process of decontamination. Hearing Amar throw around words like gamma irradiation, quarantine officers and vapor heat treatment, I have to remind myself that we are still talking about just a fruit.
On their 75-year-old farm, workers are picking mangoes and packing them into crates. Elsewhere, rows of just-planted mango grafts are being readied for the next season. Everything seems to be going smoothly.
But Amar points to a structure atop a cliff. It is one of the thermal and nuclear power plants that are coming up in the region.
“If these power plants go through, the balance of the climate here will change and our orchards will be destroyed,” he says.
Mango farmers and villagers have staged several protests against the construction of the power plants and taken the matter to court. But construction plans are still chugging ahead.
Fit for a queen
I leave the next day for Nate village along a road that has dramatic views of the sea on both sides. My destination is an organic mango farm run by Ashok Ranade.
A sturdy man with a booming voice and a passion for producing the finest Ratnagiri Alphonsos, Ranade will not put up with haters.
“People [who don't like Alphonso mangoes] have never tasted a real Ratnagiri hapus,” says Ranade. “Lesser Alphonsos grown in Valsad, Belgaum and other places are being sold in our name. They spoil the reputation of Ratnagiri mangoes.
“Our mangoes have been sampled by Queen Victoria."
Ranade advises me to pick an Alphonso that gives a bit when squeezed, but doesn't bruise. Color doesn't indicate ripeness and some Alphonsos are green even when ripe.
As we trek around his orchard, Ranade talks almost reverently about how his mangoes ripen naturally, without any chemicals, nourished by organic fertilizers and pesticides that are made from his own cows' urine. It is mixed with extracts of different plants and herbs to add that extra punch of health.
On the way back to Mumbai, I come across several women on the road with sacks full of Alphonsos. They are looking for a ride to Ratnagiri town.
One of them -- Rushali Paradkar -– says these are scavenged fruits, all fallen from trees. She bought them for Rs 25 a kilo. The mangoes are not very ripe so she makes pickle and sells it in the market at Rs 40 for half a kilo. I ask her if she thinks people will ever get tired of the Ratnagiri hapus.
No, says Paradkar, with a firm shake of her head. I don’t argue with her, she has just told me that she has a “PhD in palmistry” and clearly has insider information on the future.
My last stop is a cart selling Alphonso mangoes on Gokhale Naka in Ratnagiri town. It belongs to a beaming Ashwini Patil. After some healthy bargaining banter, I ask for a taste. Whipping out her knife, she pauses before slicing her precious Alphonso.
“If you don’t like it you still have to pay for it,” she says. There’s obviously no such thing as a free hapus in Ratnagiri.
All through my journey, the only free taste of Alphonso offered was the small bowl of aam ras at the Desais'. This mango is like a treasure fiercely guarded by locals.
Pockets considerably lighter, I set off for Mumbai with my Alphonsos, consoling myself with Ranade’s parting admonition: “A lot of hard work goes into an Alphonso. So next time you buy one, don’t say it costs too much.”
Getting there: Our drive by hired car from Mumbai to Ratnagiri took around 5 hours.
Several bus operators will take travelers between Mumbai and Ratnagiri. Fares range between Rs 350 and 700. Bus tickets can be booked at www.redbus.in.
Ratnagiri is connected to Goa, Mumbai and Pune by train. The best trains to take from Mumbai is the 2051 Jan Shatabdi Express that leaves Dadar station at 5:25 a.m. and reaches Ratnagiri at 10:40 a.m.
Other options are 2619 Matsyagandha Express (departs from Lokmanya Tilak at 2:10 p.m., arrives Ratnagiri at 8:25 p.m.) and 0111 Konkan Kanya Express (leaves Dadat at 11:20 p.m. and arrives at Ratnagiri at 5:38 a.m.). Bus and train tickets can be booked at www.makemytrip.com.
There is no airport in Ratnagiri.
Where to stay: Ashok Ranade's farm has a modest guesthouse for visitors. Apart from mangoes, attractions include bird-watching tours, boat rides with the chance of spotting dolphin, and delicious vegetarian meals served by Mrs. Ranade who also makes and sells her own line of organic pickles and chutneys. See more on AAR Farms: www.aarmangoes.com.
Ratna Sagar Resort on Bhatye beach. It has 30 cottages; opt for one with a sea-facing verandah, www.ratnasagarresorts.com.
O’Nest Homestay in Devrukh, 40 kilometers outside Ratnagiri. A farm resort, it is in an orchard and has two cottages and four double rooms, www.onestresort.co.