Every person living in Mumbai/Pune swears by the timeless combination of Mahabaleshwar and bright red strawberries – almost all of us have had school picnics there as children, including me.
While strolling in the windy hills of Mahabaleshwar, I felt I may as well address it as the strawberry garden of India. The sight of red and ripe strawberries in the farms and market, and its juicy fragrance follows one everywhere they go. Along the Panchgani-Mahabaleshwar road, one can see beautiful strawberry plantations on both sides, and local farmers excitedly selling fresh produce from their fields. A walk in the markets/tourist places has sights of many berries like raspberry and gooseberry.
(In picture: Vendor selling strawberry, gooseberry and raspberry in Mahabaleshwar-Panchgani)
I was especially looking forward to try strawberry with fresh cream, which has pretty chunks of strawberry in them. Needless to say, I came back with bottles of jams, fudge and jelly toffees. If fruit based food is your thing, you won’t be disappointed with the options like crushes, jams, chocolates, strawberry with fresh cream, strawberry fudge, strawberry wine and jelly toffees.
A recent visit to the most popular hill station in Maharashtra made me realize agriculture is a significant part of its thriving tourism; I don’t think any of us can imagine being in Mahabaleshwar and not have strawberries, can we?
History of the fruit
Even though we associate strawberry with Mahabaleshwar like it’s one and the same, I was surprised to find that strawberries aren’t native to Mahabaleshwar. It was the summer capital of Bombay Presidency under British Raj; one look at names of popular tourist places (Arthur’s seat, Connaught peak, Kate’s point) and it’s pretty obvious. The British brought strawberry from Australia during their rule, and since then the local farmers have developed their own variety of the fruit. Hilly slopes, cool temperature and red soil were/are conducive factors for strawberry production in Mahabaleshwar-Panchgani.
How are strawberries cultivated?
I wanted to know how these beautiful berries are grown and one morning I set out to visit a farm to learn the same. We took a narrow road off the highway, and had a bumpy ride to the farm, but soon forgot about it when we found ourselves surrounded by strawberry shrubs. December is the month that witnesses the juiciest strawberries, as per the farmer, and he explained us how the famous fruit of the hills is cultivated.
(In picture: Strawberry farm)
Mother saplings are grown in nurseries in Wai in June, as Mahabaleshwar receives torrential rainfall. Runners from these plants can be rooted and grown to produce new plants. The cultivation starts after Ganesh Chaturthi in September, when the fields are ploughed. Fumigation is carried out, bunts are made and are covered in plastic to prevent weed growth. Holes are made in plastic sheets, on both sides of underwater lining of water pipes, and seeds are planted in them. Manure is periodically added through these holes, and insect-repellant papers are inserted in the bunds.
(In pictures: Strawberry plant from nursery in Wai, a farm prepared for cultivation with bunds covered in plastic sheet and insect paper )
Strawberries are grown from December to April. Rain is harmful for their cultivation, so with the first shower, the farming of strawberry ends. Since it is a very perishable fruit, the farmers usually seek to sell them as quickly as possible.
I got a chance to pick some strawberries from the farm. The farmer showed us how to pick them, which ones to pick, and I had a great time learning little farming secrets from him while doing so.
(In picture: Strawberry picking in farm)
He was kind enough to also take us through his cabbage, broccoli and carrot plantations. Carrots are planted in October and take 3-4 months to mature. Since carrots grow underneath the soil, length of the plant above it shows maturity.
December is the best season for strawberry cultivation and January onwards it’s time for raspberry cultivation. Mulberry cultivation season starts in March, which takes one-and-a-half months to mature.
The costs of fruits are very subjective to the month and their cultivation seasons, and are priced highest during their respective seasons.
He also shared that June onwards there is no farming in Mahabaleshwar, till the time monsoon ends.
Geographical Identification status
Did you know that these strawberries are sort of branded? The strawberries grown in the Mahabaleshwar-Panchgani region received GI status in 2010 and are recognized as ‘Mahabaleshwar strawberry’, which is on the lines of brand name for the strawberries. Such identification conveys an assurance of quality, and helps the producers with its export to other countries and their rights as growers of the fruit.
(In picture: ‘Mahabaleshwar strawberry’)
One of the most joyful experiences has been buying a small box of strawberries, while strolling in the small market, popping the fresh fruit into my mouth and savoring it! It was only natural that I brought home a box full of strawberries, with the highlight being that we ourselves picked them from the farm. Add to that, we also got to have strawberry with fresh cream with a view of the farm – the whole experience brought us childlike pleasure.
I’d recommend a farm visit, no matter how young/old one is. Fruits and vegetables from the hills draw us tourists to them, so the farm visit made the experience wholesome and delightful.
(In pictures: My box of strawberries, strawberry with fresh cream)
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(All pictures are taken by me, unless mentioned)