x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Troubled reign for 'king of fruits' as prices soar

Could the King of Mangoes lose its crown? Prices are soaring as this year's Alphonso crop falls short

31 May 2102, New Delhi, India: Wholesale mango seller Salim (foreground) at Azadpur market in North Delhi surrounded by boxes of fruit being readied to transport around the country. The low yield of mango this year is driving up prices in India. Picture by Graham Crouch/The National
31 May 2102, New Delhi, India: Wholesale mango seller Salim (foreground) at Azadpur market in North Delhi surrounded by boxes of fruit being readied to transport around the country. The low yield of mango this year is driving up prices in India. Picture by Graham Crouch/The National

Is the king about to lose its crown? The king of mangoes, that is - the Alphonso, prized for the exquisite flavour and juicy flesh that has earned it the royal accolade.

Prices have soared with the partial failure of this year's crop in the Indian state of Maharashtra, leading to much hand-wringing among devotees about the cost and scarcity of the prized fruit, much of which is exported to markets such as the UAE.

This is the second successive year that the crop has been badly damaged, leading some growers to wonder if they should abandon the Alphonso in favour of varieties less vulnerable to weather fluctuations.

A perfect storm has greatly reduced this year's harvest, with reports of up to a third of the crop being lost in the usually temperate Konkan region in the state, where the Alphonso is traditionally grown.

Storms and rain in January and April destroyed many of the fragile buds. The second period of unseasonably heavy rain also lowered temperatures, causing more damage to the surviving buds.

Shortly before the first crop of mangoes was to be harvested in March, more rain, high winds and low temperatures wreaked havoc on the delicate fruit.

Much of the fruit that survived was damaged, reducing its shelf life and restricting sales to the less lucrative domestic market.

"Even if they mature - especially mangoes - with damage marks, they cannot be exported," says Nityanand Rai, a horticulturist in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. "They have to be consumed in the domestic market."

A series of poor harvests, including a 70 per cent loss last year, have caused prices to double since 2010. The first boxes of a dozen mangoes are currently selling for up to 2,500 rupees (Dh165).

Given the price and the fact that India produces more than 1,000 varieties of the fruit, it is little wonder that Indians are beginning to consume other types of mango.

"That mango is for rich people," said Rajinder Sharma, referring to the Alphonso.

Mr Sharma is chairman of the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee in Azadpur in North Delhi - one of Asia's largest wholesale fruit and vegetable markets.

Fears that the bad weather is a result of climate change has led to predictions that the Alphonso could disappear from Maharashtra and the neighbouring state of Gujarat within a few years.

Interviewed by The Times of India, several farmers in Gujarat spoke of replacing the Alphonso. Growing the variety is "a gamble", said one producer, Baalu Desai. "You lose four out of five times because of the onslaught of climate changes."

Even when prices fall as the harvest progresses, Alphonsos typically sell for around 60 rupees each, up to double the price of other varieties. The difference is due to the fruit's delicate and balanced flavour and appearance.

The skin of a ripe Alphonso is golden and smooth, with no green or red blotches. Other varieties, such as Dussehri, are almost cloying in flavour, others are fibrous in texture, or too acidic.

The fruit is named after Alfonso de Albuquerque, a Portuguese colonial administrator in 16th-century India who is said to have favoured the variety when travelling to Goa.

Much of the crop is shipped overseas, packed in boxes of protective paper strips, to be devoured by fans from London to New York. One Indian courier company, DTDC, has even launched "ManGo", a domestic and international air shipping service for the fruit

The British actor Terence Stamp, who markets a range of health foods, admits to devouring Alphonsos in the bath. "I always say unless you've had an Alphonso mango, you've never had a mango," he was quoted as saying by The Guardian.

Alphonso mangoes were also given to Queen Victoria, as Empress of India, and shipped from Mumbai's Crawford Market for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

But while India is the world's largest producer of mangoes, its export market has fluctuated wildly in recent years. Last year, the country exported 59,000 tonnes of the fruit, according to the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority of India.

By comparison, the country exported 83,000 tonnes in 2008.

India still grows around half of the world's supply of the fruit, but that figure used to be closer to 80 per cent.

However, residents of the UAE need not rush to stockpile their favourite variety, said Soumya Behera, a senior research analyst with Agriwatch, a company that monitors commodity prices in India.

As the largest importer of Indian mangoes, the UAE enjoys special privileges when it comes to supplies. Last year, the country purchased roughly 25,000 tonnes of mangoes, a figure that has stayed level despite harvest fluctuations.

Rather, it is other nations that are left out. Exports of Indian mangoes to countries such as the US, Japan, Nepal, Switzerland and the Netherlands have been cut by half.

Indians, too, are shortchanged, but at least they will soon be able to substitute some of the hundreds of other varieties the country is reported to grow. Right about now, mangoes from parts of India that were not hit so hard by the weather will begin to reach the markets.

While market analysts and producers fret over export figures and harvests, India's restaurateurs seem undeterred by reports of Alphonso's tottering crown.

Manish Mehrotra, the executive chef at Indian Accent, one of New Delhi's best restaurants, has prepared a special dish using Alphonso mangoes.

"The Alphonso is well known abroad, that is why we keep it on the menu. It almost represents the mango brand abroad," said Mr Mehrotra, who won the Foodistan TV cooking competition, featuring Indian and Pakistani chefs.

His dish is a spin on a traditional Indian dessert called aamras, a cold soup-like dish of puréed mangoes.

Aamras is eaten in Gujarat and Maharashtra, where the Alphonso is traditionally grown, so he has little choice.

The price of Mr Mehrotra's dish, 575 rupees, may seem reasonable but considering that the dish is a mango soup that Indian mothers make every summer, the chef has certainly dressed it up.

His aamras is accompanied by coconut-and-jaggery (palm sugar) ice cream, topped with popped and candied rice sweets, and served in a bowl made of ice. The whole thing is kept cold in a bed of dry ice that gurgles away as the dessert is eaten.

Diners at Mr Mehrotra's restaurant are mostly tourists or wealthy Indians who probably pay little attention to the price of mangoes. The ones who most notice the difference in the price of an Alphonso mango will be the mothers making aamras in Gujarat or Maharashtra.

"These shortages and price rises are felt most by the communities that consume these mangoes regularly," said Mr Mehrotra.