Monday, March 7, 2016

Among the varieties of South Asia's most cherished fruit, one looms especially large in India's consciousness at this time of year. Read on.

When summer arrives on the Indian Subcontinent, in April, only one aspect of its scalding touch gives comfort. The heat ripens and suffuses with sweetness the region's parade of mangoes, much missed from Delhi to Dhaka, Karachi to Chennai, since they disappeared the previous July. First into the markets—and also, many assert, first in taste, bouquet, color, and shape—is the alphonso variety of western India.

"Hapus! Hapus! Hapus!" Every year, around the time temperatures start to rise above 90 degrees, the region's own word for the variety begins to circulate in boardrooms, trains, and tea shops. Merchants in city markets welcome fragrant, hay-lined boxes of the green-gold fruits with their enticing rosy blush, costing up to $20 a dozen—a stratospheric figure by local standards. The price represents the promise, if not always the reality, of perfection. The creamy saffron flesh of the best specimens can pack such a burst of flavor and texture, it seems to deliver all of life's sensual pleasures onto the tongue.

Like champagne, the alphonso belongs to a place. The soil and climate that give it its legendary qualities are found south of Mumbai, in the balmy tropical region known as the Konkan Coast. Here, the alphonso is anxiously contemplated and cosseted all year by estate owners, gardeners, grafters, pluckers, and packers. (With good reason: as the world's largest producer of mangoes, India exports some $50 million of the fruit per year.)

It was on this stretch of palm-lined shore, more than 400 years ago, that Portuguese colonists made the grafts that brought the alphonso into being. According to one story in its copious lore, the fruit gets its name from Afonso de Albuquerque, a mango-loving 16th-century Portuguese conqueror.

For all its pleasures, the preeminence of the alphonso in modern fruit-ology is somewhat circumstantial. It is relatively scarce, therefore expensive, therefore talked-up; it arrives right at the start of mango season; and it travels better than most, giving it access to life and lucre in the Middle East, Europe, and America.

But then again, is there another Indian mango as versatile and cosmopolitan? Eaten by itself, it is exquisite, but it can star in a cocktail at a high-end hotel or surprise in a chickpea salad, and it came singing out of the best cheesecake I've ever eaten. Its mere aroma can bring on a burst of sudden happiness. India offers many experiences of the sublime, but in April, all roads lead to the alphonso.

Among the varieties of South Asia's most cherished fruit, one looms especially large in India's consciousness at this time of year. Read on.

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