Taste of Life:‘Kawasji–Patel’ mango trees still stand tall at Europe, US farms and gardens
Cowasjee Rustomjee Patel (1744 – 1799), became the Patel of Bombay in 1763 after the death of his father, Rustom Dorab. When the English conquered the neighbouring island of Sashtee and its capital Thane in 1774, he was appointed the Patel of those villages too. He was presented a Dress of Honour in 1775 by the Governor, William Hornby, for his services. He held the lucrative contract for supplying shipping vessels to the East India Company. He encouraged the Parsees to migrate to Bombay and Thane from Gujarat. In 1776, he constructed a tank at Khetwadi, the area still popularly known as CP Tank.
A variety of mango, grown in his orchards in Thane and Poona, was named after him. The mango, “Kawasji – Patel”, was gathered green with white pulp. It had no fibre and hence was an excellent choice for cooking. The Europeans and the Parsees preferred the mango to cook jams and jellies.
In the early nineteenth century, the Europeans started to travel more between the continents. Not all officers and their wives who went back to Europe would miss the fruits they had had in India. But “Kawasji – Patel” was a variety they wished they had in Europe.
Several efforts were made to take “Kawasji – Patel” to Europe. They all failed. The Europeans realised that if they wanted to devour mangoes in their homeland, it had to be either Alphonso or Pairi.
An experiment was carried out at the Ganeshkhind Botanical Gardens, Poona, in 1900 to test the relative keeping and ripening qualities of Pairi and Alphonso varieties.
Twenty-four fruits of each variety were used and an additional twenty-four of Pairi were kept as a check. It was found that Alphonso was the better keeper. All the Alphonso fruits, even when plucked green, coloured beautifully, assuming an orange-yellow hue. The Pairis coloured feebly and were green to some extent, even when fully ripe. The Alphonso mangoes kept the firmness of their flesh till the last. The Pairis became watery soon. It was then decided that the Alphonso was the variety to export.
But exporting mangoes to Europe was easier said than done. The fruit had to stay fresh for a month and a half without cold storage. The first task was to find the right containers to store the mangoes on the ship.
Experiments carried out for twelve years at the Ganeshkhind Botanical Gardens showed that the great desideratum was a light, thief-proof, rain-proof, and well-ventilated package that would take approximately 75 fruits. As the packing material, hemp fibre and dry grass were used. The fruits were suspended in muslin bags fixed above and below on to trays. Soft, dry grass was found to be more satisfactory than hemp fibre, provided the fruits were wrapped in tissue paper.
A trial was conducted where two dozen Alphonso mangoes were sent to Karachi. They reached the destination without much damage. The fruits were then sent to Marseilles, Trieste, and London by Mail steamer. Cold storage was not available on these steamers. The fruits so sent, with the exception of a few that arrived at Marseilles, were in a hopeless condition on arrival. The cost of sending the fruit was also very high.
The Agricultural Department concluded that the European market was then limited and that until cold storage was provided for mangoes on the Europe-bound steamers the fruit would not arrive in good condition.
When this was announced to the public, some letters criticising the department appeared in newspapers. The Ganeshkhind Farm was told that fruit had been satisfactorily sent from the West Indies and from India to Europe and that they should consult fruit merchants and traders to gain expertise.
Accordingly, in 1913, an inquiry was made with four shipping companies in Bombay as to the number of mangoes exported per season. The 1913 exports of the four companies totalled 1,470 dozen mangoes. Of these, 129 dozen mangoes were sent from Poona. The fruits were said to be exported in small wooden ventilated partitioned boxes holding one fruit per compartment.
Messrs. George Monro Ltd., Covent Garden Market, London, in 1914 replied to the Superintendent, Ganeshkhind Farm, as follows – “We receive occasional consignments of mangoes generally sent to us by business people who have bought them from Bombay and Poona. We have also had several instances of traders who have endeavoured to send large quantities but they have never arrived in good condition except when they have come on small lots brought personally. There is a demand for really fine mangoes from Bombay and Poona if they arrive in good conditions, but the difficulty of getting suitable temperatures has always been in the way of this with any larger quantities.”
The British Council in Brindisi, a port town in Southern Italy, wrote in 1914 – “There is no commercial import of mangoes here. In the first instance, they would arrive during the Italian fruit season, when native fruit is cheap and abundant. Secondly, the Brindisi Port said that P & O has no cold storage and the mangoes are only taken as a favour to their own officials. There is no doubt that mangoes will arrive in good condition, if properly packed, but there is no sale for them here or elsewhere in Italy”.
As had been seen by the trials at the Ganeshkhind Botanical Gardens the possibility of Indian shipments arriving in good condition was small. Since importing mangoes to Europe proved to be a nearly impossible task, the department decided to send mango plants to Europe and to the US.
The first task was to design appropriate containers. G Marshall Woodrow recommended the use of Wardian cases to transport trees. These were essentially boxes with a glass roof protected by strips of wood. Ventilation took place through sheets of pierced zinc, and boxes were raised from the ground on square wooden legs. These cases were expensive and held few plants in proportion to the material used.
Ordinary wood packing cases had been used at the Ganeshkhind Botanical Gardens for the dispatch of plants to Washington DC, Dongola, and Cairo. Most of the plants reached their destinations safely.
The annual report of the Hawaii Experiment Station for 1908 gives an account of shipping mango grafts from the Ganeshkhind Botanical Gardens to Washington by mail steamer. The plants arrived in good condition but the immature wood died and the plants became defoliated either during the journey or on arrival. The report recommended the packing only of plants with mature wood and dormant buds.
Experiments at Ganeshkhind Farm showed that the plants must be small, hardy, and dormant with no diseased or weak branches. During the travel, ventilation and watering must be arranged. Both could be secured by fixing wire netting over the top of the box and nailing over it strips of wood at intervals of two inches, instead of putting on a lid. The cases were to be kept on the deck of the steamer out of the way of sea water and tied in a fixed position. The plants were to be watered lightly with fresh water through the top of the case every second day in hot weather.
Mango plants sent from the Ganeshkhind Botanical Gardens still stand tall at various farms and gardens in Europe and the US. These include the “Kawasji – Patel” variety too.
Chinmay Damle is a research scientist and food enthusiast. He writes here on Pune’s food culture. He can be contacted at email@example.com
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