The European Union's sudden import ban on the Alphonso mango is causing consternation in New Delhi, writes Samanth Subramanian
Mango lovers reap the fruits of European ban
NEW DELHI // Coming soon to a supermarket near you: the king of fruit, Alphonso mangoes from India, at half price or less.
The bonanza for mango aficionados is a consequence of a sudden import ban by the European Union that took effect on Thursday.
Despite a poor harvest this year because of a long winter followed by a sudden heatwave, the ban leaves growers with a potential glut.
“We’ll send more batches to the Middle East, maybe. They’re very popular in the UAE,” said Prakash Pednekar, a grower of organic Alphonsos in Ratnagiri, in the state of Maharashtra.
“And we’ll also sell them more right here in India. The price of the Alphonso has fallen over the last three days or so.”
The Alphonso is India’s pride and joy, with a passionate following around the world. The mango’s two-month season is awaited with breathless greed, the anticipation further sweetening the mango’s rich, buttery flesh. This exalted status explains the consternation caused by the EU ban. Along with all Indian mangoes, the EU has forbidden the import of four vegetables because of “significant shortcomings” in the sanitary conditions of raw plant products from India.
The United Kingdom, which pushed for the ban after more than 200 consignments of fruit and vegetables from India to Europe last year were found to be contaminated by fruit flies and other pests, argued that these pests could damage its tomato and cucumber crops.
But none of the four banned vegetables – the aubergine, the taro, the bitter gourd and the snake gourd – has triggered the political and media reaction that the Alphonso has.
“Imagine sacrificing the king of fruits for salad!” the Times of India wrote in an editorial.
“Alphonsos being Alphonsos, Europeans themselves might take up the issue with their government, lest they miss out on the delicious king of fruits,” the New Indian Express said.
In London, parliamentarian Keith Vaz, who is of Indian origin, called the ban “Euro-nonsense and bureaucracy gone mad”, saying “Indian mangoes have been imported to Britain for centuries”.
Mr Vaz later announced that the ban on Indian mangoes would be debated in the House of Commons this week.
Last year, Britain imported 3,304 tonnes of Indian mangoes, according to India’s Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (Apeda).
In a letter to the EU trade commissioner, India’s commerce minister Anand Sharma warned of repercussions from the ban, hinting that “such measures … would not inspire confidence amongst our agricultural community for a long-term engagement”.
India exported 55,584 tonnes of mangoes last year – Alphonsos as well as other varieties – and earned revenue of 2.65 billion rupees (Dh162m) in the process, according to Apeda, with the EU accounting for approximately 10 per cent of these exports.
The mango is an old native of India, but the Alphonso cultivar owes its name and existence to Afonso de Albuquerque, a Portuguese nobleman who led his country’s fleets to India in the early 1500s. It was the Portuguese who introduced the technique of tree-grafting, from which the Alphonso was created.
Grown primarily in western India, the best Alphonso mangoes are small, plump and have a green tinge to their golden skin. Their pulp is so juicy that eating them is invariably a delicate process.
“You can’t eat the Alphonso without getting just a little messy,” the English actor Terence Stamp once told The Spectator magazine, explaining why he tended to eat the mango in his bathtub.
The pure sweetness of the Alphonso remains embedded in the memories of people who eat them. The late Bengali poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, once described an elderly man in his memoirs as “a perfectly ripe Alfonso mango – not a trace of acid or coarse fibre in his composition”.
Among the 400 or so varieties of mango, the Alphonso alone provokes long and fervent discussions on Chowhound, the online bulletin board for foodies across the world. The approach of the Alphonso season sends ripples of excitement among users, with aficionados swapping information about availability.
“Don’t wanna alarm anyone, but I just picked up a case of Alphonso mangos on the Gerrard East strip. It’s on people,” a user in Vancouver wrote last month.
The EU ban on imports is an unwelcome development, said Mr Pednekar, the grower in Maharashtra.
However, the ban, which runs until December 2015, will not devastate mango farmers this year.
“We had an extended winter, and then it turned hot very quickly,” Mr Pednekar said. “So all across this area, the Konkan belt as we call it, the harvest has been quite low. The plants flowered well, but they didn’t bear as many fruit as usual.”
Demand for Alphonsos across the world remains high, he said.
As the summer heats up, the shelf life of mangoes grows shorter, further depressing their market price, and export-quality Alphonsos might be found for just half their regular retail price.
According to India’s National Horticulture Board, the wholesale price of the Alphonso fell in April from 68-92 rupees a kilo to 40-50 rupees.
Since the EU ban took effect, prices have slid further to 25-30 rupees per kilo in some parts of India.