The hotspot of strawberries, Mahabaleshwar offers Kavita Kanan Chandra some adventure as well.
Heaps of luscious red ripened strawberries in leafy cups tempted me to buy some more at Arthur's Seat, the queen of all points in Mahabaleshwar at a height of 1,470 mts. The very thought of popping into my mouth the farmfresh strawberries bursting with flavours, while walking under the cool embrace of the trees perked me up. Slowly and stealthily without any screeches or calls, five monkeys came close. I quickly threw few strawberries at them.
Wherever I went — temples, forts, local market or even the sunset point — the fragrance of juicy sweet strawberries beckoned me. March is the prime season for strawberries. Being highly perishable in nature, the farmers in Mahabaleshwar want to sell them as fast as they can. The strawberries sell as less as Rs. 60 a kg. Going by the brand name “Mahabaleshwar strawberries”, all the strawberries grown in the Mahabaleshwar-Panchgani region of western Maharashtra are sought after. The British had brought these strawberry plantations from Australia. The cool climate and red soil are conducive to its growth. Berries like raspberry, mulberry and gooseberry too grow in abundance. I was there for four days and saw simple economics theory of demand and supply regulating the prices. The prices rose to Rs. 80 per kg on weekends as tourists flocked from Pune and Mumbai. Shankar, a strawberry seller said the berries fetch Rs. 150 per kg as summer holidays commence and by fag end of May are sold at a premium of Rs. 250 per kg. Rains are detrimental to strawberries and with the first showers the season ends.
I stayed at a wonderful secluded heritage bungalow in the midst of a forested hill. The view from the garden was bewitching with a wide valley in front and varieties of colourful birds twittering around. If not for strawberries I would not have ventured out anywhere near the civilisation. But a stroll in the local market every evening to have my daily fix of fresh juice with little chunks of strawberries became a necessity. Sampling the preserves, jams, fruit crushes, ice-creams, milkshakes, strawberry with fresh cream, strawberry fudge or even the jelly toffees; the berry wove its magic on me. Priced at Rs. 40 and Rs. 90, the juice and strawberry with cream respectively could be had more than once. At Wilsons, the strawberry fudge at Rs. 400 per kg was supremely delicious. One could also have fresh juices at Archies farm, Hirkani garden, Garden Green House, Shilpa farm and Deepak Baug. Then there are bigger players like Manama, Mapro and Mala having jam factories and do brisk sale of umpteen arrays of squash and preserves. All along the Panchgani-Mahabaleshwar road, one could see the strawberry plantations and local farmers selling fresh produce from their small fields.
I was keen to visit a village farm, and Suresh Jadav, the owner of two acres of strawberry farm, obliged. Riding pillion on his rickety motorcycle became an added adventure for the narrow roads led to muddy tracks ensuring a jolty ride. But the sight of the fields with rows of strawberry shrubs cheered me up. Admiring the shrubs, Suresh said caring for the plants was like raising one's child. They need a lot of protection from pests and diseases. The cultivation starts just after Ganesh Chaturthi (around September) when the fields are ploughed. Bunts are made and fumigation done, after which the fields are covered with plastics to prevent weed growth and erosion. Cow dung manure is added and fields sprayed; then seedlings are planted through holes punched in plastic sheets. Strawberries are ready after Diwali and the season lasts from December to May, the production peaks during February and March, when they are the cheapest. Suresh and I picked the berries early in the morning. I was delighted to see around 30 kg of strawberries. He put “Atki” (a local leaf) in cardboard boxes to keep them cool and packed them. I left with loads of sweet memories and boxes of even sweeter strawberries.