Noris Ledesma is amused.
The curator of tropical fruit at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden is explaining the difference between how people in her native Colombia eat mangoes and the meticulous way they are peeled and consumed in the United States.
You get your knives and your napkins, she told a packed house at a presentation at the 22nd annual International Mango Festival in July at Fairchild, and you carefully cut the fruit off center to miss the thin elliptical pit, score the halves, then flip them inside out and scrape out the cubes of fruit.
"By the time Richard has explained how to cut a mango, I've eaten five," she said, referring to Dr. Richard Campbell, Fairchild's director of research and one of the world's foremost experts on mangoes, of which there are about 650 varieties. For those of you who thought a mango is a mango is a mango, that might be news.
In Colombia, Ledesma explained, the small, thin-skinned Azucar mango is popped into the mouth whole, worked with the tongue from side to side, the fruit sucked out and skin eaten too. All that's left to discard is the woody pit.
"We get messy up to our ears when we eat mangoes," she said.
The mango is called the "Queen of Fruits" and is beloved in tropical countries from India to Thailand, Brazil to Mexico and in the many Caribbean islands. It's also a coveted treat in European cities, such as London and Paris, where immigrants from warm-weather climates have settled. Each country has its own mangoes, grown there because of the specific location, climate and terrain. The word terroir is often used to describe the conditions in which wine grapes are grown, but it could also be used for mangoes.
Colombians favor the Vallenato and Azucar mangoes. In Thailand, they prize the Nam Doc Mai. In Haiti, it's the Madame Francis, and in Trinidad, the Julie. Indians love their Alphonso and Mallika mangoes, among others. Indians are especially adept at using mangoes in many ways — which makes sense, given that the fruit was born in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Many varieties of mangoes are grown in Fairchild's groves, grafted onto the Florida-hearty Turpentine mango rootstock. At the International Mango Festival, the love for the fruit is evident. People crowd the market to check out — and buy — more than a dozen varieties, with names such as Edward, Champagne, Lippens and Ruby. Mango medics are on hand to answer questions from amateur growers. Hundreds of small trees are for sale, representing varieties you see at fruit stands and markets in South Florida but rarely in the grocery store.
Various food vendors are using the fruit in their offerings, and for the first time, I try Thai Coconut Sticky Rice With Mango and am hooked. They call it a dessert, but I might consider it for breakfast too. It should be served at room temperature, allowing the flavors to blossom. The sweet coconut rice is a wonderful balance with the slightly tart, silky mango. The vendor is using perfectly ripe Nam Doc Mai mangoes. I vow to try making it as soon as a I get home. (See accompanying recipe.)
"South Florida is a special place for mangoes," Campbell says, because the climate is perfect for growing and also because its international community brings attention to the mangoes of their homelands. In South Florida, they know their mangoes.
The Tampa Bay area isn't bad for mango growing, but the occasional freeze north of the bay itself can kill a tree. Pine Island in Lee County is a hot spot for mangoes, and that's where the Cogshall was born. The Cogshall is the No. 1 specialty mango imported into Paris, Campbell said.
Tommy Atkins mangoes, mostly grown in Mexico, dominate the commercial market, and that's usually what we see in grocery stores now, though occasionally you'll notice the yellow-skinned Champagne. Campbell, who calls himself a mango snob, said the Tommy Atkins is "not a bad mango, but it's not a particularly good mango." Easy to say for someone who has his pick of the world's most delicious varieties. His favorite is Edward, a cultivar that originated in South Florida and is named after Edward Simmonds, who was with the U.S.Department of Agriculture in Miami in the 1930s.
The Tommy Atkins is named after Thomas H. Atkins of Broward County, on whose property the variety was first grown in the early 1920s. Its parentage is the Haden mango, and that's often the giant mango-laden tree you'll see this time of year in people's yards.
But while the Tommy Atkins might not have the silkiness of other varieties and certainly has more fiber, it has become a top commercial mango because of its robust production and long shelf life. Tommy Atkins makes up about 80 percent of the mangoes sold in U.S. grocery stores.
On the road
Driving back to the bay area from the festival, we take a detour through the Redland agriculture region of Dade County. Our destination is Robert Is Here (19200 SW 344th St., Homestead; robertishere.com), the tropical food stand that draws tourists and locals for its wide variety of fruit and, even more tasty, its milkshakes. Yes, there are mango shakes, but we opted for one mamey sapote, another tropical fruit, and the more mundane but equally delicious coconut.
There are piles and piles of mangoes, and I load up on more, knowing there are about 40 in the car already. I want some beautiful red Kents, and then I spy some called Pickering and another tagged Valencia Pride. I grab some of each.
Just before getting ready to leave, I spy mounds of Keitts, a mango that's bigger than a kitten. The 2 ½-pound behemoth set me back $7, at $2.50 a pound, and I have yet to cut it because it's still not ripe. (Mangoes are among the few fruits that actually sweeten after they are picked.)
Many people at Robert Is Here cradle the mangoes close to their noses and breathe deep. For mango lovers, that aroma is intoxicating. I can attest to that. On the drive home, across the Tamiami Trail and up Interstate 75, my bounty of mangoes in the back seatemitted a heavenly smell.
I begin to imagine mango bread laced with macadamia nuts, mango cookies made with dried fruit (I bought some of that too) and that lovely Thai Coconut Sticky Rice With Mango. That I will tackle first.
Well, after I cut up the ripening fruit and store it in freezer bags marked with type and date.
I also follow Noris Ledesma's lead just a little and get messy, eating juicy mangoes over the sink. It's that time of year.
Contact Janet K. Keeler at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586. Follow @roadeats.