Calling the Alphonso the king of mangos is a bit of a misnomer. It should be called the prima donna. For the Alphonso is a fussy fruit, exacting in its demands — needing just the right climate, the correct blend of nutrients in the soil, water only when it feels like it, perfectly-timed harvesting, and plenty of TLC in its handling.
But once these whims are indulged, the diva will be ready to seduce, with her smooth complexion, a fetching blush, and an aroma that can put all the perfumes of Arabia to shame.
Weather or not
Alas, the unusually cold winter this year has upset the Alphonso crop a great deal, say fruit dealers in Mumbai’s Crawford market, already filled with the fragrance of the fruit in varying stages of ripening.
The early news is bad: “Till March 20, we had received only 25 per cent of the number we got in the corresponding period last year. In 2007, we got 15,000 to 20,000 boxes (holding anything from four to eight dozen pieces each) every day. This year, the supply is down to 5,000 to 6,000 boxes thrice a week,” says Ratnakar Laxman Karale, partner in the 52-year-old Rajaram Laxman & Co.
The main reason, he explains, is that when a mango starts to ripen, the area around the stalk dips a little to form a gentle shallow. Early morning dew settles in this cavity and if there is no sunshine to evaporate it, the fruit begins to rot.
The news is better across the mango belt in Uttar Pradesh. Growers are jubilant in anticipation of a bumper crop this year.
“The climatic conditions of the region have been favourable for the crop so far. Fortunately, there has been no rain or hail during the peak flowering stage,” says BMC Reddy, director of the Central Institute for Sub-Tropical Horticulture, Rehman Khera.
“Over 90 per cent trees in the belt are laden with flowering and fruit-setting (when flower grows into fruit) has begun,” says Insram Ali, president of the Mango Growers’ Association of India, in Lucknow.
The Lucknow mango belt is spread over three adjacent blocks — Mall, Malihabad and Kakori. Ninety per cent of cultivated land here is devoted to mango orchards, most of which bear the thin-skin, aromatic and juicy Dussehri variety that arrives in the market from the end of May.
The price push
While you wait for the Dussehri, the Alphonso is already making its appearance in the Agriculture Produce Market Committees (APMC) at Vashi, the nodal centre for all of Mumbai’s agro products.
At Vashi, Balasaheb Bhende, chairman of the Fruit Merchants’ Association, says the mango supply, which had seen a slump in March, will improve from mid-April. “The (Alphonso) fruit is selling at a wholesale rate of Rs 200-500 per dozen at present, which should retail for Rs 300-800,” he says.
But there is hope for the common man. Pankaj Khandelwal, chief executive of Desai Fruits and Vegetables, a Navsari-based exporter, says, “The peak Alphonso season this year will merge with that of the Kesar, which arrives at the end of April. Prices will remain high till April-end, but after that they will crash.” This is, he adds, assuming that last week’s unseasonal rain in some parts of Maharashtra has not caused further havoc.
The export pull
Another reason for Alphonso prices being pushed up is that Mumbai accounts for nearly 80 per cent of India’s annual mango exports. In 2006-07, that figure, stood at 79,060 tonnes and was valued at Rs 141.94 crore, according to the Agriculture Produce Export Development Authority.
With the US now allowing mango imports from India, and with Japan and China also evincing a similar interest, exports are bound to increase. The Middle East and the UK, however, remain the biggest importers of the fruit from India.
Like our blockbuster movies, Indian mangos have an eager audience all over the world.