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Financial Times

One Giant Step For Mango-Kind - Mangoes Triumph Over Bland, Mass-Produced Strawberries, Says Philippa Davenport


May 31, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved. 

In the summer of 1980, when Marks & Spencer started selling mangoes in Britain, the company announced that it aimed to do for the mango what it had done for the avocado - to establish it as a fruit for all households. Less than 25 years on, the British mango market is worth about £21m per annum and the mango has risen from rank outsider to become one of Britain's favourite fruits. It is exotic, but not outlandishly so, and wonderfully versatile, equally relished in sweet and savoury contexts. And while strawberries have degenerated sadly into bland second-class fruit available every week of the year (see story, right) mangoes have become luscious cause for summer celebrations.

Mangoes look voluptuous and make sublime eating when perfectly ripe, with their silken flesh, juicy sweetness and magical fragrance. Greengrocers, street barrows, ethnic shops and supermarkets are piled high with them now. This is the season to feast on them.

The only problem for a nation new to mangoes is that quality is tricky to judge until you are properly familiarised. Jorge Martel of Martex Farms, Puerto Rico's leading mango grower/exporter, offers good advice. Ignore skin colour, he recommends. Shoppers must accept that red is not synonymous with ripe; some mangoes remain completely green even when fully mature. Feel and smell offer more reliable clues. Cradle mangoes gently in the hand before buying. If the flesh feels neither mushy nor hard but gives a little under the skin, it is ready, or nearly ready, to enjoy. Then sniff. A honey-scented mango with the merest hint of resin, promises good eating. Odourless mangoes are underripe but may be improved by a few days' nursing at room temperature. Turn them and check daily, employing the paper-bag trick if you want to speed the ripening process. A marked turpentine smell signals mango past its prime, but you may be able to save some good bits to puree for smoothies, lassi, sauces, mousses, sorbet or ice-cream.

Martel believes passionately in tutored tastings to help shoppers (and shopkeepers) recognise ripeness, to differentiate between various cultivars and to appreciate the culinary suitability of each kind. He rejoices, as I do, that Britain has started selling mangoes by named variety, not just generically. For just as Golden Wonder and Pink Fir Apple potatoes are totally different, so are Alphonso and Tommy Atkins mangoes. We need to know what we are buying.

Tommy Atkins is one of the three most widely sold varieties and a pet hate of mine. Popular with growers because it crops heavily, and appealing to consumers because of its rosy red skin, it lacks aromatic character and can be fibrous. I would much rather buy one of the other best sellers, Keitt or Kent. Keitt travels and keeps particularly well. It is juicy, tender yet firm, with pleasing tropical flavour and aroma. Not truly outstanding eating perhaps but blessedly reliable. Kent is more risky, boasting musky floral flavours and meltingly soft flesh, but it is easily bruised and goes over the top quickly.

Other common commercial varieties include Haden, Parvin and Ruby (small with cherry and orange blossom fragrance). I am told we may see more of Osteen, Palmer and Vallenato in future.Then there are the premium priced speciality mangoes, grown and sold in relatively small quantities. Vulnerable or erratic croppers, sometimes too distinctive in taste for mass production, they include Ksar, Nam Doc Mai, Alampur Banesham and Kensington. Alphonso is king of them all, the most mangoey mango, small and deeply fragrant, fruity and spicy, slippery with juice, ambrosia when at its best. Precious cargoes of Alphonso are flown into Britain from India when its brief season arrives in May to mid-June. British-based addicts make pilgrimages to such places as Southall, Leicester, Birmingham, and Drummond Street in central London, in search of the intense but fleeting pleasure of this magnificent fruit.

Alphonsos come in boxes, nesting in soft paper wrappings with festive shreds of pink, silver and purple tinsel. But, caveat emptor. Don't expect perfection in every fruit. This is a game of Russian roulette and some of your booty may be fit only for composting. It seems a pity to serve mangoes in elaborate guises. Keep things simple and let the fruit proclaim its own glory.

The classic way to eat mangoes is in the bath. At table, you can prong whole peeled fruits with forks to eat like corn on the cob, not forgetting napkins tied bib-fashion round the neck, and finger bowls. Alternatively, slice both cheeks off the fruit (sucking the stone is the cook's perk) and eat the flesh from the curved parts with spoons, like avocado. Criss-cross hatch the flesh with a knife and turn the cheeks inside out for a hedgehog effect, if you prefer. I only bother with this when grilling mangoes to caramelise an icing sugar and chilli powder crust; delicious with vanilla ice-cream. More often I simply cut the peeled flesh into crescent-moon slices, scatter with pomegranate seeds or fraises des bois, or interleave with slices of kiwi, or add a dollop of mango sorbet or cardamom ice-cream.

Sliced mango is an excellent partner for chicken thighs grilled until the skin is a crackle of gold; try a curry cream dipping sauce (mayonnaise, curry paste and cre`me fraiche) on the side. Smoked duck breast goes as well with mango as prosciutto with melon or figs. Mango, blue cheese, pomegranate seeds and toasted walnuts laid on a bed of young spinach or watercress make an appetising light lunch. Seared scallops are lovely with sliced mango, dressed with olive oil, lime, salt, coriander leaves and a little chilli. Mint, cumin seed and lemon juice with freshly grilled prawns make a enticing variation on the theme.

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