Waking up to Tropical Fruit
Canary Islands and Andalusian province of Málaga are the main mango prouction areas in Spain. Photo by: Juan Manuel Sanz/©ICEX
One wakes up in the Canary Islands to sea air with its iodine tang; a backdrop of bitter green banana palms and rustling, pine-clad hillsides; and papaya juice and mango fruit salad for breakfast. Equivalent impressions for the Málaga coast (Andalusia) are of an intensely blue sky above a vivid green expanse of mango plantations carpeting the gentle lower slopes of the Sierras de Málaga.
Papayas and mangoes arrived in coastal Spain from the distant tropics in the 18th century, a period when Spain’s possessions still extended over four continents, an empire on which the sun never set. The first mangoes were brought in on galleons from the Philippines (though the species originated in India), and papayas on merchant ships from the Americas.
For 200 years, papayas (which grow from the trunk of attractive, elegant trees) and mangoes (which hang, earring-like, from goblet-shaped bushes), led a sheltered life in gardens and orchards, acquiring particular characteristics from Atlantic influences in the case of the Canaries, and Mediterranean ones in the case of coastal Málaga.
From garden to marketplace
In the almost tropical climate that both areas enjoy, the papaya and mango trees that once graced local gardens have successfully transmuted into cultivars grown in protected greenhouses in the Canaries and open-air plantations in Málaga.
According to Antonio Sarmiento, one of the farmers who pioneered mango production in Málaga, he and his co-growers made the major moves that this entailed for one simple reason: “It was love!” Antonio remembers tasting mango for the first time, over 25 years ago, and thinking to himself “This is just delicious!” From that day on, he has eaten a mango every morning without fail, a fact to which he attributes his excellent health at 77 years of age. He is still fully involved in the daily running of his farm, located in Benamocarra, on one of the south-facing slopes of the Tejera and Almijara mountain ranges. Sarmiento explains that the varieties most commonly grown around here are Osteen, Kent and Keitt, known for their melt-in-the-mouth flesh, citrus aromas and outstanding sweetness. These mangoes’ reddish-purple skins gleam in the sun from first thing in the morning during the harvest months (September and October), embellishing the Vélez-Málaga to Benamargosa stretch of the road through Axarquía (a district in easternmost Málaga province).
David Sarmiento believes that Spanish mangoes are discernibly different in flavor and aroma because they are harvested almost as soon as they ripen on the plant: as a result, they contain a higher percentage of sugar than any others in the European marketplace. Spanish mangoes can reach 20 degrees Brix, compared with the 12 or 14 degrees found in fruits coming into Europe from other sources and harvested before they are ripe. Furthermore, Spanish mangoes are the only ones in the world that reach the marketplace clad in their own waxen coat (a natural protective layer secreted by the fruit itself), and therefore not washed or treated with edible varnishes or fungicides. “It’s completely natural,” comments David as he takes us through the elaborate process that enables these punctilious producers to present their product just as nature intended.
Mangoes are picked from the tree one by one; their stalks are cut off then and there, and the fruit is meticulously positioned upside down on the ground to release the latex or sap that would otherwise stain their velvety skin. After an hour and a half, they are put into crates and transported to the packing plant in Vélez-Málaga. The plant belongs to the Sociedad Agraria de Transformación, the agricultural processing company better known as TROPS. Representing 1,100 farmers, TROPS is Spain’s biggest mango producer: it accounts for 80% of the 10 million kg (22,046,226 lb) of mangoes harvested in Spain each year. Much of the mango harvest is dispatched from TROPS to the main markets in France, the UK and Germany, the fruit tucked into little boxes amid blue cellophane paper which shows off the deep purple of their skins, perfect beneath their coating of natural wax.
Tropical forest in the Atlantic
Meanwhile, mangoes are doing just as well in the Atlantic setting of the Canary Islands as they are in Mediterranean Andalusia, with the added bonus that papayas (another tropical fruit whose career path in the wake of the mango’s is proving just as successful) are also grown commercially in the Canaries.
On Tenerife (one of the seven islands that constitute the Canary archipelago), the greenhouses within which most of the papaya production takes place are just a stone’s throw away from tourist beaches and holiday hotels. With its hot, moist climate and mean temperature of 20ºC / 68ºF, this coastal area of the Canaries is the only part of Spain where papayas are grown.
One can just make out the slender shapes of the papaya plants through the greenhouses’ white stretchy fabric walls. The papaya is a prolific plant: its teardrop-shaped fruit grow out of the main trunk all year round. Stepping inside, one enters a sort of idealized tropical forest, richly aromatic and vividly green and decorative: no wonder papayas are still such a feature of local gardens and banana plantation perimeters.
Ase Guren, manager of Aguadulce (an agricultural processing company set up 30 years ago, based in the south of Tenerife Island) has been completely won over by papayas. For many years, the company’s greenhouses were used for growing aromatic herbs and ornamental plants, but they have now been given over entirely to veritable forests of papayas. The current production figure stands at around 100,000 kg / 220,462 lb a year, all of which is absorbed by the local market at present. Ase’s ambition is to get papayas to a wider public, but she believes that the best way of achieving this is through cooperation among the farmers. With that end in view, she belongs to a group of producers who are promoting the creation of a quality brand that will identify their fruit as Papaya de Canarias.
Tenerife-born brothers Pipo and Adán are promoting the planting of new varieties from within their company, Semillas del Caribe. In their view, in addition to their organoleptic characteristics and shiny orange skins, their plus points include an inbuilt resilience to minor bumps and the wear and tear that transport inevitably involves, making them a suitable crop for export. The brothers represent a new wave in a movement begun by pioneers like Miguel González, one of the earliest nursery growers in the Canary Islands to breed rootstocks of papaya and mango nearly 30 years ago.
He is a keen botanist, as is his son Zebenzui; consequently, they have built up a wide-ranging collection of these fruit trees, extending their sphere of interest to include new tropical trees such as mamees, lychees, carambolas (star fruit) and passion fruit. A stroll around the greenhouses at their company HQ, La Cosma, in the little Tenerife town of Bajamar (in the northeast of the island) is like a visit to an exotic botanic garden, sheltered by mountains yet benefiting from the moisture that reaches it from the nearby sea. Miguel believes that more and more hotels in these tourist-orientated islands are starting to enjoy and capitalize on the distinction of not only stunningly beautiful surroundings, but also dishes and fruit that only these islands can offer, and that leave an enduring impression on visitors.
The heady scent of mango and the sensual sweetness of papaya leave few people unmoved. Devotees include Spain’s most famous chef, Ferran Adrià. He has given creative expression to his appreciation of mangoes in many dishes, often using innovative techniques such as spherification to do so.
Adriá is not alone: other Spanish chefs have also been using mango in their dishes for years. One notable example is José Carlos García, chef at Málaga’s Café de Paris (one Michelin star). His parents (the restaurant’s founders) are originally from Rincón de la Victoria, a town in the Axarquía area of Málaga that is the hub of Spain’s mango production. Encarna and Pepe used to serve mangoes simply as seasonal fresh fruit or made into a refreshing sorbet, but José Carlos García takes a more adventurous approach and uses them in savory dishes in summer “...because they’re so close at hand”.
This young chef likes to cook according to what is in the market at the moment, and give his own inspiration free rein; he loves the fresh taste of mango, its nicely balanced acidity and the way it responds to griddle cooking. One of his latest inventions is a marvelous match of foie gras and griddled mango. The same thinking is discernible behind his mixed grill of fruit and vegetables with scallops (mango goes as beautifully with seafood and fish as it does with meat, enhancing its flavor). One of his dishes features mango as a sauce to accompany Spain’s classic roast sucking pig; in another, it daringly fulfils the fundamental role of the rice in a risotto. He remembers how successful this latter dish was among his regular customers, and their astonishment at the texture of mango cut a la brunoise to resemble rice.