Mahabaleshwar, an idyllic summer getaway for the Bombay province during the British Raj was formally introduced to the English strawberries in the 1920s. This delectable red fruit called the Australian strawberry grown by the British in their gardens was looked upon by locals with great curiosity who were clueless about their taste and just intrigued by its attractive appearance.
It is believed that Lord Auckland, the Governor General of India had grown them here first sometime in the 1830s – 1840s but an extensive experiment to grow strawberries was conducted in the late 1860s – 1890s with the help of the prisoners of Thane Jail.
However, in 1960, a Mahabaleshwar farmer received his first hundred saplings of the strawberry plant and rest as one says is history! One strawberry plant can propagate twenty more and so from the 1960s till 1992, the Australian strawberry was cultivated in about 130 acres of land but the produce was bought by the elite.
In 1992, a strawberry revolution happened when a businessman brought the Chandler variety of the strawberry plant from California. This variety proved to be far superior in taste and size and, quickly, the Government ordered 25,000 saplings of the plant from California. And, then there was no looking back as strawberry farming took off in a big way spreading to an impressive 2000 acres from a modest 600 acres in Mahabaleshwar alone. The farmers over the years have developed their own unique variety of strawberry with its distinctive taste, size and sweetness. Varieties of strawberry plants cultivated in Mahabaleshwar are Sweet Charlie, Camarosa, Selva, Winter Down, Festival and Chandler.
Mahabaleshwar has the perfect cool and dry weather conditions with temperature at 18 °C to 25 °C and fertile red soil rich in iron that is conducive for growing strawberries and accounts for about 85 percent of India’s strawberry production. The area produces about 15,000 tons of fruit each year. The price of the fruit peaks in summer with tourists and ice cream manufacturers being the main customers. As it is a seasonal fruit, it is usually available between October to November and April to May. The average turnover in one season alone rakes in between Rs 250 crore – Rs 300 crore. As the farming is highly labour-intensive, growers and their families are heavily invested in the cultivation of strawberry.
Locals say that about 24,000 saplings can be planted in one acre of land but cultivation is expensive with the additional cost burden of manpower to pick the strawberries and transportation to the market. Now, many self-help groups have been set up to educate the farmers to get the maximum produce in an acre of land using organic farming techniques like drip irrigation, mulching, minimal spray of pesticides and improved soil health (fertilizers) to not only meet the requirements of the domestic market but also increasing export demands.
Mahabaleshwar strawberry contains up to 80 percent of water which makes it juicier than other strawberries. The glucose percentage is 10 percent as compared to 7 percent seen in other varieties making it naturally sweeter than other strawberries. It is also packed with proteins, carbohydrates, fibre, potassium, folic acid, antioxidants and Vitamin C. They are known to cure digestive ailments, regulate blood sugar levels, prevent inflammatory conditions and heart disease.
Now, a major portion of the production of strawberries is used in jams, crushes, syrups, milkshakes, fruit salads and confectionery. The domestic consumption of strawberries is still lesser as compared to European countries mainly because of a lack of awareness among people but that is all about to change with the Government actively hosting a Strawberry Festival every year to promote the excellent Mahabaleshwar strawberry. This hopes to bring in more tourists, increase consumption and production and increase the revenue for the farmers.
This deliciously sweet strawberry was granted the Geographical Indication Tag (GI) in 2010.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
* Photos are only symbolic (Taken from public domain/internet and any copyright infringement is unintentional and regrettable)