Mango season is serious business in Goa. From the beginning of the year, denizens of India’s smallest state start anxiously scanning prized trees, especially those belonging to their neighbours. By March, tell-tale blossoms broadly indicate what’s on the way, and the wait begins in earnest. Anticipation sharpens with every degree the temperature rises, right into the height of the summer.
Come April and both orchards and bazaars across the state spill over with grim-faced men and women, each intent on ascertaining the full picture of expected supply, sizes and prices. Families put their heads together to carefully calculate the right time to enter the market, so that they are assured of their fair share of the most desirable fruit. By this time, the rest of India is giddy with rapture over the arrival of Hapoos from the coastlines of Maharashtra and Gujarat. But in Goa, the waiting game isn’t for that pale approximation of the original Alphonso, which is left for tourists and similar ignorants. Here, it is all about local produce.
Goa’s mangomania focuses collectively and laserlike on the Fernandin and Xavier and Monserrate, and most especially, the indescribably sublime Hilario and Mankurad.
It has been this way for centuries. The whole of Goa, from the Ghats to the Arabian Sea, comprises a mere sliver of the vast Subcontinent, but has developed more than 100 varieties of mangoes ever since the Jesuits introduced modern grafting techniques in the 16th century. Within just a couple of decades of that influx of European ideas, the results of the experiments had become acclaimed, treasured and celebrated wherever they reached across the known world.
The arrival of the annual mango tribute to the court in Lisbon soon became a celebration that brought all other proceedings to standstill. One main reason the hopelessly mango-obsessed Emperor Akbar encouraged the presence of Jesuits from Goa in his court for so many years was their expertise in fruiticulture – eventually he planted an orchard of 100,000 grafts in Darbangha. His equally mango-besotted grandson Shah Jahan spent state resources to carve out a special “fast track” route from the Konkan to Delhi, to ensure rapid supply of the fruit through the summer months.
Although no fruit has as many powerful associations with India – mangoes are mentioned in the Ramayana, Mahabharata, as well as the earliest Buddhist and Jain literature – historical records show that it was arrival of the Portuguese in Goa in 1510 which catapulted the mango to India’s indisputable king of fruits. Just a generation later, in 1563, the Portuguese Renaissance Sephardic Jewish doctor (and pharmacognosy pioneer) Garcia da Orta’s extraordinary Colóquios dos simples e drogas da India could assert that mangoes “surpass all the fruits of Spain [meaning Europe].”
Less than a century later, in 1653, the Italian adventurer Niccolao Manucci concurred: “The best mangoes grow in Goa. These are again divided into varieties with special colour, scent and flavour. I have eaten many that had the taste of peaches, plums, pears and apples of Europe. However many you eat, with or without bread, you still desire to eat more and they do you no harm.”
By 1727, everyone seemed to agree. The well-travelled Scottish sea captain Alexander Hamilton voiced the consensus: “The Goa mango is reckoned the largest and most delicious to the taste of any in the world, and the wholesomest and best tasted of any fruit in the world.”
As a result, Goa mangoes were established as an essential tool of Portuguese diplomacy. Crates of Alphonso mangoes were prized tribute in all the kingdoms of the Deccan, and especially in the Maratha court. In 1792, the Portuguese ambassador to Pune, Vithalrao Valaulikar, wrote to the Governor of Goa, advising strict restriction on mango imports to all the territories which are now Maharashtra, in order to ensure that the Estado da India Portuguesa’s treasury of Goan fruit remained rare and precious, thus retaining its fabled allure. Not much later, the Peshwas developed mango ambitions of their own, and embarked on planting millions of Goa-derived Alphonso mango grafts throughout the Konkan. It is the hardy, hybrid descendants of these fruits which now flood India and the rest of the world as Hapoos.
The lasting success and popularity of the Hapoos has many interesting contemporary twists. In 2007, the US finally opened its doors to exports from Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district, in direct exchange for India allowing in Harley Davidson motorbikes. Periodic rounds of mango diplomacy have seen baskets of Maharashtra’s best sent across to Pakistan to sweeten negotiations across the bargaining table.
But even as they are prized everywhere else, these undoubtedly decent and adequately tasty fruits are not pursued with any enthusiasm in Goa. That’s because of the far more exquisite varietals which grow profusely in the state, which have never been hybridised for Hapoos-like characteristics required for export (such as sturdiness, and long shelf life). In a summer frenzy that lasts through the first few rains, Goa’s mango-crazed populace greedily devours these varietals. A couple of local varieties get pickled, while the rosy-hued Monserrate (Musarat in Konkani) is generally reserved to make the spectacularly dense and flavourful mango jam called mangada. All these different varietals are unusally delicious, but the objects of maximum desire and longing, the fruits that strike the deepest chord in every Goan soul are the luscious Hilario, and the peerlessly magnificent Mankurad.
In his heartfelt 1902 love letter to mangoes, A Mangueira, the hopelessly smitten Goan botanist Joao de Mello de Sampayo meticulously surveyed the remarkable reach of Mangifera Indica from its original birthplace along what is now India’s border with Myanmar to the rest of the world. He dutifully rated each region’s produce for colour, size, consistency and taste, and then came to the predictable conclusion that Goan mangoes were the best, “with a texture like the best ice-cream, or a rich clotted cream”. With mounting passion, Sampayo assessed the virtues and failings of each variety: the Colaço (Culas in Konkani) “sours quickly after ripening”, the Fernandina has “pulp more consistent than the others”, and the Malcurada (Mankurad in Konkani), “it has the most delicious flavour of all”.
The Hilario was propagated long after Sampayo’s ode, and every tree derives from a famous progenitor from the garden of Hilario Fernandes in Siolim. Its remarkably fibreless flesh is the sweetest ever recorded, which is among the reasons it has spread so widely just four decades after being identified. By contrast, the Mankurad has maintained its reputation as the apex mango for generations, thus establishing itself as iconic, talismanic, the epitome of everything precious and captivating and sexy in Goan culture.
Many noteworthy male writers over the centuries (the roster includes my grandfather, the notable poet Armando Menezes) have succumbed to (now embarrassing and politically incorrect) analogies to faultless feminine beauty. The anti-colonial novelist – and father of Portugal’s current Prime Minister – Orlando da Costa is typical in his classic O Signo da Ira (The Sign of Wrath), when he describes “breasts that now seemed like two malcurada mangoes ready to be picked, but still clinging fearfully to the tree”.
Another mango-loving Goan, the unofficial laureate of Konkani, Bakibab Borkar, wrote, “Like a drop of honey/soft as a bride’s lips/our pride, our wealth/is the Goan mango” – lines which perfectly underline an easily proven certainty. Try it and you can’t deny your taste buds. First take a ripe Mankurad mango, then slice it open next to its Ratnagiri Hapoos equivalent. Now close your eyes and taste them. The size and colour of the two fruits could well be similar, maybe even identical. The consistency will likely be more or less the same. But the cinnamon-caramel-honeyed depths of flavour of the Goan fruit will bedazzle and overwhelm, and so its rival will immediately start to taste watered down, even woefully anaemic. By the second mouthful, you can be sure, only the Mankurad’s golden succulence will satisfy. A few more slurps of pure paradise, and then you’ll be done. Promptly, powerful cravings will set in for the next one. Now you get it. This is the meaning of mango season in Goa.