Store-bought mangoes, imported from Mexico, the Caribbean and South America, are a crapshoot. Sometimes they're great, but they're usually not identified by variety, and the most common kind, the red-skinned, highly productive Tommy Atkins, is fibrous in texture and mediocre in flavor. Most imported mangoes have to undergo hot-water treatment to kill insect pests, which destroys the aroma, and if the fruit is harvested before it is mature or the process is not done correctly, the fruit can shrivel or develop off-flavors.
Compared with the commercial mango orchards south of the border, mostly located in tropical climes, the Wong Farms planting in the Coachella desert seems to be on a different planet. It's a harsh but gorgeous site, a mini-jungle of mangoes rising like a mirage in the arid, sandy scrubland, flanked by the Chocolate Mountains to the east, the San Jacinto Mountains to the west and the shimmering Salton Sea a mile or so to the south.
The orchard was Ed Wong's dream, and though he died before it reached fruition, his daughter, Deborah Wong Chamberlain, and her family have kept it up and expanded the planting to 2 acres.
They grow two varieties, starting in the early season with Valencia Pride, which is large, elongated and kidney-shaped, with a canary yellow ground color, and bright pinkish blush on sun-exposed fruits. It's luscious and aromatic, with tender, yellow-orange flesh. In Florida, where Valencia Pride originated in 1937, it is mostly grown in home gardens because it is less productive than commercial varieties, is thin-skinned and delicate and cracks and splits when it rains.
The farm's main variety, which it will be bringing to market for the next month or so, is Keitt, a seedling of an Indian variety first planted by a Mrs. Keitt in Florida in 1939. As grown in the desert, the large oval fruits have pastel greenish skin, even when ripe, sometimes tinged with a slight blush; the flesh of ripe fruits is deep orange, fiber-free, juicy and honey-sweet.
Commercial mangoes are harvested when they are mature but before they are ripe because if picked soft they could not be shipped or stored. Wong Farms takes an unorthodox approach, harvesting at a range of maturity from almost to fully ripe. The fruit is sweeter and more flavorful that way, but uneven ripening, in which the stem end is hard and sour while the "nose" is squishy soft, can be a problem on some specimens.
The Wong mangoes tend to sell out early, and many customers reserve their supplies in advance by calling Chamberlain at (760) 265-9167, or e-mailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org. At $3.49 a pound, they're not cheap, and far more expensive than Mexican Tommy Atkins, which recently sold for as low as 14 cents a pound on the Los Angeles wholesale market.
There is another option for local mangoes, less expensive than the Wong fruit and more widely available. There are commercial Keitt mango orchards in the Coachella desert, some 300 acres in total, originally established by the legendary produce mogul Howard Marguleas. Tilden Farms, whose owner, Brad Tilden, is manager of the packinghouse that handles this fruit, has just started selling them at Orange County farmers markets: Friday at Laguna Hills and Whittier; Saturday at Irvine and Laguna Beach; Sunday at Laguna Niguel; Wednesday at Fullerton and Tustin; Thursday at Costa Mesa and Orange.
Most of the early commercial shipments from these plantings are going to Japan, but desert mangoes, both organically grown and conventional, will be available by the end of the month at local retailers including Whole Foods, Ralphs and Trader Joe's, Tilden says.
Are local mangoes worth the trouble and expense? No one knows better than Richard Campbell, senior curator of tropical fruit at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Fla., who is the nation's leading mango expert. He has written several books on mangoes, and each July he organizes the International Mango Festival at Fairchild. He is so passionate for mangoes that he was photographed in a bathtub full of them for the current issue of Edible South Florida.
Last Thursday, starting at 6:15 a.m. to avoid the brutal midday heat, he toured the CM&S orchard in Oasis, owned by Marguleas and partners, as well as Wong Farms. He marveled at the sandy, porous soil; conferred with the farmer of the big plantings, Linden Anderson, and with Chamberlain about the nitty-gritty of horticultural practices; and intrigued them with his descriptions of a series of new mango varieties that he and a partner, Gary Zill, have bred "just for flavor."
Compared with Florida mangoes, the desert-grown fruits are paler in color, but just as sweet or sweeter, though perhaps a touch less complex in flavor, Campbell said. The fruit at Wong Farms seems particularly flavorful, he observed, because the trees are given low levels of nitrogen (used to fuel vegetative growth) and low irrigation (the farm pays high residential rates rather than cheaper agricultural rates for water). The CM&S orchard receives higher levels of nitrogen ("the enemy of mango fruit quality") to boost production, but the fruit will still be better than most imports because of greater freshness and attention to detail in growing, picking and post-harvest, he added.