Around the middle of April, lots of things start happening with fruit in the produce biz. Citrus starts to fade - we still see plenty of great late availability in oranges, lemons and grapefruit but many of the cool varietals finish for the season. Apple and pear variety generally tends to shrink at this time as well, though they will get a boost in the form of new crop off shore arrivals from South America. Berries are in full swing but very weather dependent and the early soft fruit (peaches, plums, apricots and cherries) choices are limited to non-existent. Springtime marks a time of renewal and growth but, in the world of fresh produce, spring also means a gap separating the end of the domestic winter (or hard fruit) season and the beginning of the summer (soft fruit) season. It is in this gap that mangoes are at their seasonal best - a "bridge fruit" that carries us from winter to summer.
Mango Grove - Costa Rica
Mangoes (or tropical peaches) are among the most widely produced and consumed fruits in the world - production estimates put mangoes between 40 and 50% of all the fruit produced for juice, canning and fresh consumption. Originally cultivated on the Indian subcontinent, mangoes are now produced along the equatorial band throughout the world with Mexico currently holding the title as the largest exporter of fruit. The mango tree itself is a truly incredible organism - cultivated specimens can live for 300 years or more, reach a height of 120 feet, and have tap roots that can push 20 feet into the earth. Under the canopy is a quiet, cool, twilight world - the one time I witnessed it was in Costa Rica on vacation. The broad abundant leaves of a mango tree block almost all the light and stepping under the 35 foot canopy was like walking onto a covered porch from the sun. The fruit is also a wonder of tropical evolution - firm and stout seeded, with a thick protective exterior skin.
Here in the U.S. we get mangoes from all over the globe - we even produce a few here ourselves. The majority of the fruit we see comes from Mexico, but over the course of the year we can see fruit from Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Haiti, Costa Rica and, more recently, from India. To be allowed into the U.S. most of the fruit must undergo a process called Hot Water Quarantine Treatment to kill any fruit fly larva or mature insects. This is a process where the fruit is submerged in 115°F water for 55 to 110 minutes. This treatment process is ideal for the growing trade in organic mangoes as it adds no artificial inputs in post harvest. Some countries have opted for irradiation instead though- exposing the fruit to low levels of radiation to eradicate fruit flies. Due to this irradiation, you will not find Indian mangoes at Whole Foods Market.
There are dozens of cultivated varieties of mangos that fall into three broad groups in a produce department. The smallest group here in the U.S. is the green cooking mango, which is used extensively in Southeast Asian recipes. There is also a red/green skinned and yellow skinned group of varieties - both of which will start green but one group ripens to a full yellow exterior color and the other group retains some exterior green (and red) coloring when the fruit is ripe. Varieties will change as the season progresses and growing areas change. One favorite the Hayden - this red/green skinned variety is plain in appearance externally but extremely flavorfully and less stringy than most of the varieties in this group.
Another favorite is the Francique variety from Haiti. This yellow skinned variety has a smooth melon-like texture and is widely regarded as the sweetest mango sold in the U.S. Harvested green, the Francique turns full yellow as it ripens, developing an outstanding aroma and flavor. Mangoes are a key element of sustainable agriculture in Haiti, providing soil retention on otherwise bare hillsides that are vulnerable to erosion. Erosion has decreased agricultural yields and coral reefs around the island are suffering because of the massive amounts of sedimentation that is washed into the ocean during each rain. While most trees in Haiti are being cut down and sold as charcoal, the mango tree, because of its economic value, is not. Our Francique mangoes are grown exclusively in Haiti and are Fair Trade certified for sale under our Whole Trade Guarantee; in limited supply from late April through May. Whole Trade Guarantee mangoes are supplied by a federation of 10 member organizations representing some 12,000 mango farmers in Haiti. 90% of these mango growers have less than five trees and their average annual income ranges from $400-$2000/year. The additional income that these growers receive from our purchase is being reinvested to plant more mango trees and increase future earnings.
Red/ Green mangoes- Atlanta
In selecting a good mango you should use all your senses. The fruit should be uniformly firm (but not hard) to the touch with no soft spots (bruises). Both the green and yellow group of varieties will turn yellow when completely ripe (the yellow varieties turning a full yellow while the green varieties will retain some green) but the important thing to note about color is it should be uniform from the stem to the flower end of the fruit - if it is not the mango will likely be tart (which some people like). The red blush on some varieties comes about through direct exposure to sunlight and is not a factor in the quality (or ripeness) of the fruit. The last and most important sense to engage is smell - a ripe mango has a rich, wonderful fragrance. Another important note is that, like most tropical fruits, mangoes can discolor if refrigerated so it is best to keep them at room temperature.
Organic Kiett mangoes- San Diego, California
Most folks I have spoken to about mangoes have said they would eat more if they were not so difficult to prepare - and the truth is a mango is not as neat an eating experience as an apple or banana. I have two methods that I use- the "garden hose" and "porcupine" method of preparing/ eating mangoes. The garden hose method is simple- you insert a fork into the stem end, cut and peel back the skin in four equal segments. You then sit in your back yard with a garden hose to spray yourself off with after you have finished eating the mango.
The porcupine method is a bit harder but gives great results- slice the mango into three pieces along the flat part of the seed (you should end up with the seed center and two shallow cup-shaped pieces) discard the seed piece and with a knife cut cross hatching lines in the flesh of the mango into the other two pieces- taking care to cut all the way to the skin but not through it. You then invert the skin - the flesh will pop up (like the quills on a porcupine) making them easy to cut off of the skin. You can cut close together or far apart to make small chunks (for salsa) or large (for eating alone in a more civilized way)
In salsas over fish, chicken or tofu, as part of a fruit salad, blended into ice cream or just eaten alone, mangoes are a wonderful addition to your diet. After I say goodbye to blood oranges for another year and before I get obsessed with cherries, the mango is my springtime bridge to summer.
Many thanks to Matt Rogers, Carol Medeiros, John Walker, and Karen Christensen for contributing to this post.