Celebrating the fruit queen

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 18 Sep 2019

Last week’s Cairo Mango Festival suggested changing ways of enjoying the country’s favourite fruit, reports Dina Ezzat

The end of mango season was celebrated by Cairo’s Mango Festival, showcasing the astonishing variety
The end of mango season was celebrated by Cairo’s Mango Festival, showcasing the astonishing variety of Egypt’s beloved fruit

It would have been traditionally the beginning of the end of the mango season in Egypt. But this year, as if in celebration of this “queen of fruit”, the end of the season was celebrated by a major festival drawing attention to the possibilities of this favourite fruit.

“September is traditionally the month when one doesn’t see piles of mangoes in pyramids at the entrance of juice stores. But now the mango is on for at least a couple more months, the fresh mango, I mean,” said Nada, who was generously serving fresh and natural mango juice and mango slices to those attending Cairo’s Mango Festival last weekend.

Most of the juice Nada was offering came from one of over 120 species of mango that Egyptian farmers now cultivate every year. However, the slices of juicy mango were from only 15 types of mango.

Last Friday at Family Park in east Cairo, a group of farmers and investors organised an event to celebrate the mango. The purpose of the festival, which saw significant attendance from the residents of nearby residential compounds, was to exhibit the wide variety of mangoes now available on the Egyptian market.

“Egypt has traditionally close to 100 types of mango that have been cultivated for close to 150 years and maybe more, and during the past 10 years or so we have been seeing some 20 or 25 new species finding their way onto Egyptian farms,” said Ahmed Damarani, manager of Ismalawy, an online mango business.
Damarani is part of a family that has long been farming mangoes in Ismailia, one of the governorates that has established a name for premium quality mangoes.

“In Ismailia, we know types of mango that farmers in other governorates may not even be familiar with. Most of the product of Ismailia is dedicated to exports, and it is also Ismailia that provides the local market with premium quality fruit,” Damarani said.

It was perhaps in 1825 that Egyptian ruler Mohamed Ali introduced the fruit to Egypt with other trees, fruit and vegetable species. By 1850, Egypt was finding its way to becoming a leading producer of mangoes in the Middle East. Mangoes are currently farmed essentially in Ismailia, Sharqiya, Noubariya and Giza.

Mangoes are also one of Egypt’s most-exported fruit, with these exports including older and newer varieties. “I think we have room to expand and have types that could be very well received if exported to North America, given that they come with a taste that is very different from the types commonly available there,” Damarani said.

“Mangoes are cultivated in both naturally fertile and cultivated soil, provided that the soil is not high in salinity. This is why we have seen the expansion of cultivation that allows for the introduction of new species, extending the mango season that starts around June until November or early December,” Damarani said.
This year, Ismalawy’s deliveries of mango packages throughout Ismailia and Cairo have lasted much longer than used to be the case three years ago when the service started online.

“I think there is a growing awareness that the mango season is not as short as it used to be and that while mangoes might not necessarily be available at traditional fruit stores or supermarkets, they are still there at specialised mango hubs,” Damarani said.
The long mango season was one of the points that Amr Matar, key organiser of the Mango Festival, wished to underline.

“Mangoes are still primarily a summer fruit, and clearly they get a lot more expensive as summer comes to an end. But some species continue to bear fruit throughout September because our weather continues to be warm enough throughout the autumn, and this is helpful for the cultivation process,” Matar said.
GOING FOR MANGOES: Many participants in the festival, taking place from early morning to early evening, were not unfamiliar with the extended season of mangoes in Egypt over the past decade or so.
Azza, a housewife, said that one thing she had learned from trying the new types of mango that she sees on sale at fruit stalls on the road is that she “would not go for the new types” in preference to the old.

“I have seen them, but I had not tried them. Today, I got a taste of several of the new types, four or five, and I cannot say I liked them because they don’t have the traditional sweetness of our mangoes,” Azza said.
However, Ahmed, the owner of a mango farm in a cultivated soil zone, said that he was now contemplating introducing some of the new species alongside the traditional species he already grows.
“I think it would eventually work, just like we got used to having different tastes of apples when this was not the case 30 years ago. We can get used to having different tastes of mango,” Ahmed said.

The quality of the mango taste was something that some of those present, especially those who own or work on mango farms, debated during the festival. Some admitted that there had been a decline in the quality of the distinctive Egyptian mango taste as a function of the decline of the use of local varieties of seeds that do not provide high production, unlike the imported seeds.

“This is less so with mangoes than with, say, strawberries or guavas, given that the fruit essence in mangoes is higher than that in strawberries. But this is the case with most fruit, though you can still find the production of local species for sure,” Matar said.

One thing that the festival was trying to bring attention to was that mangoes are more than a delightful fruit and they can be used in several cooking recipes. As part of the event, Matar had brought in a tasting-buffet that offered several dishes with mangoes as an ingredient. Those included spring rolls filled with mangoes, pasta with mango chunks, sweet-and-sour chicken with mango slices, and pickled mangoes.

Matar would not venture to say that people had immediately appreciated what they had tasted at the buffet. Nor would he disagree with the fact that the tasting service for fresh mango juice and mango slices had seen a lot more attention than the buffet of mango dishes.

“I know that for us the mango is still a fruit and that we would only reckon with mango juice or mangos used for dessert recipes as an acquired taste. The introduction of Chinese and Indian cuisine to Egypt did not happen long ago,” Matar said.

The introduction of new and the reintroduction of some older elements of food and beverages were part of the festival itinerary. “We wanted to give space to start-ups to join because we did not assume that people would just spend a full day eating mangoes or drinking mango juice and believed that there were new small businesses that could need exposure,” Matar said.
OTHER BUSINESSES: Hossam Abbas and Magdi Bishai were overwhelmed by the attention they got at their stall carrying the name of a recently inaugurated business, The Pasta Bakery, for example.
At four in the afternoon, Abbas, a dentist, and Bishai, an electronics engineer, were working non-stop to produce their freshly baked fettuccines in diverse varieties from a Parmesan wheel.

It was last year that the two professionals, who graduated a few years ago, decided to forgo their professions to embrace pasta-making. In February, they inaugurated their first store – they hope it will become a chain – in Heliopolis, where clients go either for cooked or half-cooked pasta or for freshly-made pasta to buy.

“We are planning to have a restaurant one day, but as a start-up we thought that we would launch a small place where quality pasta could be provided at a price not significantly higher than packed pasta,” Abbas said.
Abbas has been happy with the success of the project and thinks that The Pasta Bakery could do well given that pasta is a well-liked dish for many Egyptians and that more people know new pasta recipes they were not familiar with just a decade ago.

“We traditionally think of pasta in typical Egyptian cuisine as spaghetti Bolognese, but now many people are more familiar with fettuccine with white sauce and mushrooms. Raviolis are getting quite popular too,” Abbas said. The Pasta Bakery has its own menu, but it also allows clients to pitch in with customised sauces upon request. This, Abbas said, was the new trend.

Another new trend on the sidelines of the Mango Festival was the online food industry. Sip&Chip is a cookie-cup business that is only available online, for example. Ali Wanas, its manager, had gone on Instagram just a few days before bringing his products to the Mango Festival.
Originally a graduate in business, Wanas decided to launch his own start-up out of a passion for food and the realisation that “when all is said and done, eating out or ordering food in is something that many like to do for entertainment.”
Wanas sells his cookie cups, which he bakes along with a couple of assistants, online for LE20. They are sold in boxes of six to 12, and they come in diverse flavours. It is too early for Wanas to decide whether his new business will be a success or not, but he is hopeful, “to judge by the early days.”

“Selling online cuts the price, because you don’t need to pay for a store. But it does not cut down on quality. The competition now is on good quality, innovative packaging and proper delivery,” Wanas said.

According to Matar, the success of the Mango Festival is in promoting not just new types of mango and new ways of buying premium quality mangoes online, but also in introducing new start-ups in the food industry that may tempt him to pursue similar events later this year.

According to Fathi Kamel, an investor, there is a room for the business to grow in local and foreign markets. During the past few years, Kamel like other investors, says that growth in this sector has not been as fast as earlier forecasts had projected.

This was essentially due to the devaluation of the currency in November 2016, which influenced the agricultural sector due to the increase in the price of agricultural inputs, and also affected the food and beverage industry.
“We saw a drop in spending for sure, but ultimately the food sector is like pharmaceuticals – it resists recession,” Kamel said.
Egypt’s annual exports of fruit and vegetables come in at around 4.5 million tons, and the value of its food industry business is in the billions, excluding restaurants and start-ups.

According to Kamel, there is a room to expand on both fronts quite comfortably. But senior economic analyst Riham Al-Dessouki said that this expansion could not just depend on the natural growth that comes with population growth. Both for the agribusiness and food industries, Al-Dessouki argued, there are new international norms that need to be observed through appropriate regulations.

High-quality agricultural land should not be compromised for real-estate development or crops that could be cultivated in reclaimed soil. “This is to secure the quality and productivity of the crops,” Al-Dessouki said. It was also, she added, to secure high-quality production that could help expand agricultural products.

The branding of quality agricultural or food products, Al-Dessouki argued, could also be highly sensitive. “If a country’s crops get a rejection note from one market, that could certainly have a negative influence on their chances in other comparable markets. The same thing applies for food products,” she argued.

But she agreed that the expansion of agriculture and food start-ups was set to expand the agribusiness and food industry. “Again, this relates to the young age of society as a whole, with 60 per cent of the population under the age of 30. Young people are more attracted to fast life trends and the evolution of technology,” she said.

Egypt, Al-Dessouki stated, was very well placed to improve and increase its agricultural and food productivity and exports both through state regulations and larger and smaller business schemes.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 19 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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