One question that i keep facing in early summer is “When are the mangoes coming?”. The people who ask me this question are mostly health conscious individuals who have tasted the naturally ripened mangoes that we sell from our farms. The only disconnect in the question is the timing of the question. When i walk my mango grooves, the mangoes that i see, do not really seem to be in a hurry till early may. However on the roads, when i look form the window of my car, i see push carts with nicely arranged, uniformly and bright coloured mangoes as early as April first week. While i knew how this was possible, i wanted to explore it a little more further, before i write a detailed post. So here is the truth.
The first place i visited on my journey to find the truth was the Kothapet fruit market which is the largest fruit market yard of the city. It was a place with bustling activity, with fruit in tonnes and commission agents carrying out auctions for the farmer’s produce. As soon as an auction is completed the fruit gets packed into trays and a magic ingredient is added here. Its called “Ethephon” ( chemically, 2-chloro ethyl phosphoric acid) and gives out ethylene when added to water. The ethylene gas promotes ripening and voila the fruit is yellow both inside and outside.
The individual packet is dipped in water and kept in the trays in layers of mango. There are recommendations on the number of sachets in each tray. However these recommendations are generally ignored grossly, resulting in over use of the chemical. While ethylene is being promoted as an alternative to carbide and is approved by the government as safe for public, it still is an artificial process. And most importantly nothing can be natural if the packet has a warning saying “Away from Children”
While this is the case at markets, the organised sector carries out the ripening in facilities called as ripening chambers. These chambers pre cool the mangoes and then expose them to ethylene gas at 100 ppm for a period of 12-24 hours and then ripen them in a cold room. All the major supermarkets follow this process for their mangoes. While these processes are not as full as carbide it for me still sounds artificial. The major argument in the favour of ethylene gas is that, even the fruit naturally releases ethylene during the ripening process. While its partly true, most often its the dose and the timing that makes something a poison. If left to the fruit it will release this ethylene over 7 to 10 days. However in this case its forced to the exposure over a period of 24 hours, which makes the process not natural, but manually induced. But given the sheer magnitude of mangoes that enter the market, the vulnerability of the farmer, and the way city markets and consumers are aligned, its acceptable as an option. But for the people who want only the best and natural there are options too.
There are lot of farmers who and organisations which ripen the mangoes the good old way using paddy straw or the leaves of local species like Casia Fistula (Amaltas). We personally follow this on our farms. The taste of such fruit is nothing like anything and the nutritional value is top notch. They come a little late but they are the best money can buy. And finally how do we know, when to pluck the mangoes? The answer is the whenever the birds start eating them and its generally first week of May in Hyderabad.