Tuesday, September 7, 2004

A Kahuku Farms Keitt mango tips the scales at 3 1/2 pounds. These mangoes can grow as large as 5 pounds.


Monster-sized mangoes
are making an impression
in the produce aisles

ind yourself a medium-size child -- or a large dog. Cradle the child's, or the dog's, head in your hands.

Now imagine it as a mango.


Finding the fruit: The Keitt mango is available at many supermarkets and farmer's markets.

Size: "Mini" mangoes are about the size of a standard Haden, but 2- and 3-pound fruit are common.

Ripening: Most Keitt are sold hard and green. Some have a red tinge, but color is not an indicator of ripeness or quality. A Keitt will take about a week to ripen. It will not change color; eat when it just starts to soften.

Cost: $1.50 to $2.50 per pound

That thought intact, you can appreciate the magnitude of the mega-mango, a stunning fruit growing in the hills above Waialua.

"We've had them up to 5 pounds," says grower Neal Bashford, of Mokuleia Farms. That would be an adult-size head.

This monster mango -- the name of the variety is Keitt -- was developed in Florida and is grown in several mango-loving nations, including Israel, Mexico, Australia and South Africa.

Dole Foods planted the first Hawaii trees eight years ago on former sugar lands in Waialua. Just as the trees began to bear fruit, however, Dole gave up on the Keitt -- and several other diversified-agriculture experiments -- offering the orchards to smaller farms.

In stepped Bashford, along with Melvin Matsuda and Clyde Fukuyama, owners of Kahuku Farms. Both growers expanded their line of papayas and other crops to take on about 50 acres of the giant mangoes between them.

"We were greenhorn mango farmers," Matsuda says.

The trees came through for them, however, and the mangoes became widely available last summer. This year's winter rains cost both farms their early harvest, but a late-season crop is coming on strong.

Melvin Matsuda checks out the fruit on the trees at Kahuku Farms.

The season -- normally from July to September -- has been abbreviated this year. Kahuku Farms has been harvesting about 3,000 pounds a week since late August, Fukuyama says. Bashford, whose orchard borders Kahuku Farms', expects his crop to hit the markets within a month and run four to six weeks, totaling 50,000 pounds.

Bashford actually has 100 total acres in mangoes, including another large variety, the Manzanilla, but he says in this bad mango year -- "a lot of overhead and no production" -- the Keitt "will pull me through."

Size does matter, at least in terms of attracting attention. You'll find the Keitt in stores at 2 to 3 pounds, even more, although "mini" sizes of about a pound are also available.

Bashford says the hugeness can be a problem. When a mango is particularly gigantic and sells for $2 or so a pound, the price can get high for a single fruit. "Last year, I had to sell a lot of my big stuff as seconds."

He's banking on things changing, though, as people come to understand the variety.

The Keitt has a sweet-tart flavor, with crisp flesh that's not fibrous. It also has a small, flat seed, which makes it easy to slice and means the meat-to-seed ratio is heavily tilted in favor of the meat. One large fruit will feed a crowd of voracious mango lovers.

Don't judge this fruit by its color, either. Most Keitt are all-over green, although some that grow on the outer branches have a red tint, from exposure to the sun, The color doesn't mean the fruit is ripe or that it will taste any better. Judge ripeness by feel, a slight give in the flesh. It should be eaten when still firm, not soft.

"It doesn't get as pretty, colorwise, but it is an excellent eating fruit," Bashford says. "Some people say it's the best."

William Pascua sorts and grades mangoes at the Kahuku Farms packing house in Waialua.

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