April is the cruellest month wrote T. S. Eliot, but not for the mango lover as this is the time of year when the fruit returns to the British market.
The mango is considered to be the king of fruits but the elusive Alphonso mango from India is considered the king of mangoes.
Their name derives from the second Portuguese governor of India, Alfonso de Albuquerque, a 16th century naval officer who had a passion for the fruit that has grown on the Indian sub-continent for thousands of years.
They are believed to have originated in East India, Burma and the Andaman Islands bordering the Bay of Bengal.
It was in the 5th century BC that Buddhist monks first took the fruit to Malaysia and eastern Asia and from there traders from Persia took the trees to the Middle East and Africa.
The Portuguese seeded the fruit in Brazil and the West Indies and in the 1830’s Alphonso mango cultivars arrived in Florida and California, but stil,l to this day the most venerated variety comes from the Konkan region of Maharashtra, India.
More than 1000 varieties of the fruit are now grown the world over but India remains the leading producer of Alphonso followed by Mexico and China. It is also grown in Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand, Nigeria, Brazil, the Philippines and Haiti.
Yet although Aphonso exports account for nearly 60% of the mango export trade from India, they are difficult to find in British outlets and are never found in supermarkets.
Unlike other varieties of mango more commonly found in supermarkets the Alphonso has a very delicate skin and is more easily affected by weather conditions and disease. It also tends to have a shorter shelf life.
Last year 80% of India’s crop was destroyed as a prolonged winter gave way to scorching summer heat which killed off the flowers and fruit. The mango needs temperatures in the 30-36 degrees centigrade range for the fruit to mature after the trees flower in November and December. But last year temperatures soared to 41 degrees by the beginning of April. An early rainy season further damaged the crop.
The subsequent relative scarcity of good quality fruit pushed up the price last year and the market is still recovering.
Heavy rains during the Thane cyclone in December 2011 have delayed the blossoming of mangoes this year and has led to a low yield and the late arrival of the fruits this season.
In India watermelons, limes and grapes are going some way to compensate fruit growers for the arrival of fewer mangoes this year.
The current world market is dominated by the cultivar Tommy Atkins, a variety that first fruited in 1940 in Florida, and the Tommy Atkins accounts for 80% of mangoes in British supermarkets.
Despite its fibrous flesh and inferior taste mango growers and retailers have embraced the cultivar for its productivity, resistance to disease, shelf life, transportability and size.
And so, in search of the king of mangoes, I went to Manchester’s Curry Mile in Rusholme. Curry Mile is a mile-long stretch of predominantly Asian shops selling all things Asian.
Mr Ravi has been selling mangoes for the past 30 years from his shop Ravi Food Store on Wilmslow Road, Manchester, and says that mangoes are now more popular in Britain among the general population, regardless of their origins, but Alphonso, in season, are the most popular, followed by the Chaunsa from Pakistan.
He said: “It’s the quality. It’s a connoisseur’s mango. People who know their fruit, they go for Alphonso. 99% of my customers prefer them. They have a taste. Other mangoes are just sweet but these are sweet and tangy. My customers want something authentic and different that you can’t buy in the supermarkets.”
The Alphonso are more expensive than last year at £14 for a box of 12. As Mr Ravi explains, the wholesalers are re-couping their losses from last year’s bad harvest.
Leela Joseph a retired micro-biologist from Bolton has been a customer at Ravi Food Store for more than twenty years and she has come to buy her favourite mango. Of Indian origin she has a second home in Kerala and is proud of her mango tree there.
Mango reminds Dr Joseph of her childhood. She said: “We didn’t have chocolate. A mango was given to you in the hand and you peeled it with your teeth and got involved with it, with both your hands, and the juice dripped down your face. It was wonderful.”
The actor Terence Stamp confessed in The Spectator magazine to eating mango in the bath. He said: “You can’t enjoy the Alphonso without getting a little messy.”
However you prefer to eat mango its many health benefits have been well-documented. Mangoes contain more than 20 different vitamins and minerals and are a good source of dietary fibre. They also contain an enzyme with stomach soothing properties which acts as a digestive aid.
In addition, recent research in the United States has shown that mangoes could be useful as a bio-fuel.
The inedible stones of mangoes, olives, plums, apricots and cherries, and the shells of coconut, almond and pistachio, are known as endocarp. This agricultural waste is high in a chemical compound known as lignin which, when heated, produces an energy-rich gas that can be used to generate electricity.
For its many qualities mango indeed deserves its nomenclature as the king of fruits.