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Long before travellers who zigzag their way up the Pasarni Ghat en route to Mahabaleshwar arrive in the British-era hill town, makeshift stalls that begin to appear on either side of the two-lane road provide a glimpse of things to come. The not-so-distant hills, rusty red of the laterite soil emerging a perfect foil for the copious, emerald foliage, and the exhilaration of the winter air make for a picture-postcard setting. Given this, first-timers to the territory could be forgiven if the only immediate recall of the first few encounters with such season-driven salesmanship is that of a blur of red whizzing past.

As you go past Panchgani, 20-odd kilometres short of Mahabaleshwar and a charming hill town in its own right, the vendors appear  more frequently, hands a-flail, urging motorists to pull over. And that, most will discover, can be quite a rewarding stop over. The ‘red blur’ turns out to be a mound of just-picked strawberries. Firm, luscious, glistening in the mid-morning sun, diamantine droplets of the dew still sitting on the leaves, an inviting, scintillating sculpture of conic symmetry.

There’s a lot more colour on the palette; juicy, purple mulberries, turgid with freshness; finger-sized carrots in an appealing explosion of orange, and plump radishes, magenta on the outside and white on the inside, just bursting with health. It takes no great intelligence to figure that the elements of the visual and papillary treat are products of the yonder fields.

The small, largely rain-fed fields of Mahabaleshwar that are at other times of the year irrigated by mineralrich ground water yield a wide variety of fresh produce. Potatoes, cylindrical runner beans for instance, not forgetting the aforementioned carrots, mulberry, radish, and honey to boot – all making for great takeaways. But it is strawberry that has given the town a special identity.

The Strawberry Story

Based on local accounts, Mahabaleshwar’s strawberry story can be traced   back to the late 19th century when the English residents, yearning for a taste of strawberries and cream from back home, began growing them in their kitchen gardens. With soil and climate conditions that emerged ideal for the plant’s proliferation, the seeds were sown, so to say, for more serious cultivation. “Till the 1960s cultivation of the fruit was restricted to the area around the Venna Lake, and the plants were procured from Bangalore,” recalls Panchgani-based Mayur Vora, Managing Director of the 50-something Mapro Foods (P) Limited, which is today the largest processor of strawberries in the country. The fruit, Vora remembers, was particularly delicate and so the variety did not gain any significant ground. The next major event of relevance happened in the early to middle 1970s. Some enterprising visitors to the Moral Rearmament India in Panchgani brought with them some plants from Australia, and Peter Patrov, a school teacher, began cultivating them in the villages around Mahabaleshwar. The events gave the idea more momentum. But what became a real game-changer in Mahabaleshwar’s strawberry story was a pilot project by Ambarish Karvat, proprietor of Yuppa Farms, using Californian varieties. With yields nearly four times that of the earlier plants, and sturdier fruit that had better shelf life, the Australian strawberry was pushed off the stage. Today, Mahabaleshwar’s strawberry is such an attraction that no trip to this part of the Sahyadri ranges is complete without carrying away a box full of the delicious fruit that has as much appeal for its taste as its health benefits.

Reaping Profits

Balasaheb Bhilare, a resident of Bhilar  village, which was amongst the earlier ones to go the  strawberry way, and now president of the All India Strawberry  Growers’ Association, explains, “Once we realised that it could be grown commercially, we have made great efforts to bring in improved farming techniques as well as to market the crop.” Though there is no authentic data, with over 2,000 acres believed to be under its cultivation at current count, Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani are estimated to produce nearly 85 per cent of the strawberry grown in the country. “As of now American varieties like Sweet Charlie, Winter Dawn and Camarosa are the most popular, and more recently, Italian varieties like Nabila and Rania are, literally and figuratively speaking, beginning to gain ground,” Bhilare informs.

Every year, mother plants imported from overseas suppliers, mostly based in Italy and the US are multiplied in the rainy season at nurseries in lower lying areas like Wai. Planting of the runners in the fields begins by September and the fruits begin to appear by November. The strawberry season which peaks in January lasts till March, and many visitors make it a point to time their visits to the hill station to coincide with this season. Typically, most of the fruit is sold for table consumption in the early part of the season. “Practically nothing before January 15 is processed,” Vora explains. Processing of the fruit begins to gain momentum as the season advances, and after March, almost all of it is processed, he adds, attributing this to the beginning of the summer where high temperatures do not make transportation to distant places a viable proposition.

While export of the fruit, both in fresh and processed forms, has been happening for some time now, one of the more recent developments is the annual Strawberry Festival that happens in the last week of March. Package deals offer a weekend stay in the midst of a farm, and tour and a pickand- eat- what-you-can proposition. And for those who miss this bus, there’s always the option of frozen desserts. Or then there are bottles of strawberry crush and tins of strawberry jam – sweet reminders that may just entice you to keep the date the next year around.

Author: M. Kshirsagar
Photographs © Sachin Naik
Source: Maharashtra Unlimited Vol 3 Issue 2 (2014)

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