Fruit to lust after
April rains ruined the country's crop for the second year in a row. But it's the interface between the taste and commercial success of the mango that intrigues Gamal Nkrumah
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Mangoes luxuriate in the sweltering summer heat and they do best in the humid environment and in light, sandy well-drained soils of Ismailiya
If Hindi is the reigning king among Egyptian fruit, then Alphonse is the queen. Hindi, one of the earliest mango varieties to be introduced to the country, bears a name that betrays its country of origin. Alphonse, a mango unique in taste and flavour, and canary yellow with a pink blush, is an all-time favourite of mine -- the sweet, tart and tang sensations encapsulated in the ripe fruit combine to make it especially fragrant and mouth-watering. Incidentally, the fruit was named after Alphonse Grace, a minister of agriculture in the 1930s, who developed a hybridised variety of local mango that has become forever associated with his name.
Mangoes are a sophisticated, succulent alternative to apples. But, unlike apples, mangoes are not necessarily recommended by physicians. An apple a day keeps the doctor away, goes the old proverb. A mango a day will in all probability necessitate a call by the doctor. Mango is a rich fruit, too rich, some would say. Yes, it is packed with vitamins such as A, B and C, but its sugar and fat content are more often than not dangerously high. Still, it is so delicious that most people turn a blind eye to its decadent richness.
The mango is a unique fruit, a tropical delicacy with no equal. Strangely enough, it is distantly related to cashew and pistachio, and to no other fruit. But it is most certainly a fruit and not a nut. The leathery skin of the fruit is waxy and smooth, and ranges in colour from luscious green to bright orange, canary yellow and shocking pink and scarlet. Mango is a tropical tree requiring a frost-free climate. The tree thrives in sandy soils, but it requires more fertiliser there than in either loam or clay. Mango also requires deep soil to accommodate their extreme root systems. In any efficiently-run commercial plantation, therefore, the trees must be spaced out.
Even though Egypt is one of the world's top mango growers, the harvest has been poor for the past couple of years. Indeed, by now, it should be officially acknowledged: this is going to be a pretty poor year for mango. It was something of a foreboding winter. Frost is fatal for sensitive mango trees, and especially the Sukkary (Sugary) variety, much in demand around Ismailiya. Sukkary mangoes are cheap and plentiful.
Mangoes thrive in areas where the humidity is highest, like coastal areas. They grow best in tropical regions. In Egypt, the governorate of Ismailiya is the main mango-growing area. The soil and climate of Ismailiya is especially favourable to the cultivation of mango.
The water vapour from the Bitter Lakes, Al-Buhairat Al-Murrah, in the vicinity of the city heightens the humidity levels and makes for ideal mango-growing conditions. Ismailiya mangoes have a special flavour distinct from varieties of mangoes grown in other parts of the country.
Last year's poor harvest was due to a combination of damp in spring and successive heat waves in summer. A surfeit of parasitical creatures left many of the mango trees of Ismailiya's orchards in a weak and debilitated condition. There will, of course, be some mango about this year. Diehard mango connoisseurs will not completely starve this summer.
The mango must have warm, dry weather to set fruit. Indeed, mangoes luxuriate in summer heat. Mangoes are easily grafted. They do best in light, well-drained soils. Most mango varieties require a long, hot growing season to ensure proper ripening.
Egyptian mangoes are mainly derived from the Indian, as opposed to the southeast Asian or Filippino, varieties. The mango was first introduced to Egypt from Sri Lanka, whose fruit in turn are derived from Indian varieties.
It was the work of Mohamed Ali Pasha, who planted the first shrubs in 1825. The first mango tree was planted in what is today the garden of the Faculty of Agriculture, Ain Shams University. Ironically, it was originally regarded as an ornamental rather than a fruit tree.
The genetic make-up of mango is very complex. "I'm trying to develop a new mango variety which I shall call Al-Sherif," Gomaa El-Sherif explained. "I want a fruit that is larger in size, more resistant to disease and with a richer flavour."
Mango trees need heavy fertilisation and tender caring. But the fertilisers used for mango are environmentally friendly. Commercial farmers spray mango trees with sulfurous chemicals, the natural byproducts of the Bitter Lakes in and around Ismailiya.
Mango-growing regions around Ismailiya include Abu Khalifa, Abu Sultan, Fayed, Fanara and Kabrit. These areas were not seriously affected by the heat wave.
The main problem was the tremendous difference between day and night temperatures. Mango is very susceptible to adverse climatic conditions. Mango trees also require deep soil to accommodate their extreme root systems.
Potential problems are numerous: production costs have increased sharply in the past few years. The cost of fertilisers have sky-rocketed. The price of potassium, which is very important for mango production, for example, has quadrupled.
El-Sherif said that a reduction in the space between trees -- the ideal is between four and six metres -- works best for these fast-growing plants. Mango fruit, he tells me, matures in 100 to 150 days after flowering. Grafted trees normally produce fruit within three years, compared to five years for seedlings.
Protective measures must also be taken to guard against pests and diseases, frost and mildew. The young mango fruit and leaves are subject to mildew. A mixture of copper and limestone is usually applied to protect the tree trunk. Other protective measures must be taken to guard against disease. Fertilisation is sometimes confined to a nitrogen- based fertiliser. The mango tree, or at least its commercial life span, could reach 50 years. When the mango tree is young it can be raised with orange, pear and apple trees. A typical mango tree bears fruit at the age of four.
High daytime temperatures coupled with cool evenings had a devastating impact on this season's mango crop. Some mango varieties, such as Zebda (Butter), are ideal for producing juice on a commercial basis. Some of the baladi, or indigenous, varieties are very tasty. These varieties thrive in sandy, desert soils. This is why they do especially well in Ismailiya.
In Ismailiya, the mango harvest season is the defining event of the year, especially for those who grow and sell mangoes. The most popular variety besides Sukkary (Sugary) and Zebda (Butter) is Oueiss. The ideal plantation should have three or four varieties of mango growing side by side.
Mangoes are fast growers and heavy feeders. It is vitally important that there should be no late spring frosts to kill the blossoms. And high temperatures are essential during the fruiting season, to get the best results.
Ismailiya is both hot and humid, and its winters are invariably mild. Step into the city or its environs and you enter an oasis of charm where villagey neighbourliness still exists and a provincial laxity and laid-back enchantment prevails.
However, for two consecutive years there has been a drastic drop in the mango harvest. El-Sherif, who owns a mango orchard in Serapium, near Ismailiya, and another across the Suez Canal, in Sinai, insists that Ismailiya is the main mango growing governorate in Egypt. But mango is grown in commercial quantities in Fayoum, Giza and Sharqiya governorates as well. "But the mango of Ismailiya is very special," El-Sherif says.
El-Sherif is not a man to do things by halves. Not content to establish his own commercial mango farms, he plans to create a hybridised variety to be named after himself. At first the entire venture was a trial run.
As we approached the outskirts of Ismailiya, the mango orchards that ring the city came into full view. Steam was rising from the Suez Canal and the Bitter Lakes, all three of them. All around us the verdant foliage of the waxy, dark green leaves of the mangoes were glistening in the sun which in turn was burning its way through the mist enveloping the Canal and the Lakes.
"The air feels hotter and steamier than ever," El-Sherif explained as we hurriedly picked him up from downtown Ismailiya -- a city of some 500,000 souls, broad tree-lined avenues and hundreds of striking orange and sky-blue taxis. He was wiping his brow with a handkerchief.
Drive to the edge of town in summer and look all around and you'll see a million mango groves shrouded in heat waves shimmering on the horizon. And there isn't a cloud in the sky. We were, however, soon out of town. We passed what looked like thousands of date palm fronds along dusty country lanes, and groves -- mango and guava galore. A veritable tropical Garden of Eden. It's a tough drive involving some of Egypt's most challenging roads.
Mango ripens in summer. For months on end there is sweltering heat without a drop of rain, which provides ideal conditions for the fruit to ripen.
The suffocating heat is already radiating up from the scorched gold and green landscape. I let out a sigh of relief as we approach El-Sherif's plantation with mango trees and date palms blazing tropical sunshine.
A farm hand welcomes us. Barefoot and wearing a baby blue galabiya and a floppy hat, he ushers us in. We stand next to a tree with an erect bearing to take some pictures.
January is traditionally the time of the heaviest rains, and indeed it rained relatively heavily in Egypt in January -- which was good news for the mango, of course. Expectations rose briefly and then subsided again in mid-May, but with yet another unseasonable downpour, hopes for a good mango harvest were dashed.
This year it rained more in Egypt than is normally the case. Indeed, dark clouds were gathering throughout spring. The country is normally a drought-stricken land, but this year it rained buckets. There were the odd unseasonable showers in April and even May. The rain held off after that, but gusty winds, heat waves and frosty evenings exacted a terrible toll.
But in Ismailiya on that torrid July afternoon everything was bathed in hazy sunshine. Yes, it was a breathless afternoon of stifling heat.
Sinai was not seriously impacted by the climatic changes. Indeed, El-Sherif assures me that his harvest in Sinai was plentiful and was hardly touched by the adverse climatic conditions.
It is ironic that mangoes, the most prized of fruit, are pollinated by flies, the most obnoxious of creatures. They have deep green elongated leaves. Pruning mango trees is something of a fine art. And the better it is done, the more delicious the result. Some types of mango are exceptionally beautiful to look at. The rose-tinted cheek, the so-called Beautiful Cheek, Al-Khad Al-Gamil, is one such beauty. It is found in the upmarket supermarket shelves of Cairo, but is also exported overseas. Lady's Finger, Sobaa Al-Sit, is another. There are many varieties of mango in Egypt today. However, each type of mango is used for a different purpose -- some are used mainly for preparing fresh mango juice and others are eaten as fruit, for example.
Sukkary fared especially badly this year. The Sukkary variety was hardest hit by the heat wave. Indeed, some 80 per cent of the crop was lost because of this year's unfavourable climatic conditions.
Hardier varieties such as Al-Kubbaniya, Fisher and Al-Minshawi could better withstand the unpredictable heat waves of the past decade. Global warming is obviously wreaking havoc on the mango business in Egypt.
Forty degrees, and we hurry to take shelter under the refreshing shade of the giant mango trees. We must escape the merciless, rainless skies -- nothing moving at mid-afternoon because of the impossible heat.
Clouds appear suddenly over the horizon, and a whiff of breeze from the Suez Canal.
Later we encountered Kent and Fuss, two varieties from South Africa and California respectively. These tiny mangoes might not be as flavoursome as the traditional Egyptian varieties, but they look extremely presentable and are palatable all the same. The Kent and Fuss are durable trees well-suited to Egypt's climate, El-Sherif explains.
The children hunt for low hanging ripe fruit, jumping up and down excitedly. "The story is never the same two seasons in a row," El-Sherif insists. Oblivious to all else, the children tear at the plump and juicy mangoes, and what a sight. For all its tastiness, squelshy mangoes are some of the messiest fruits to devour.