Tommy, Hansen, Duncan, Dot, Carrie, Graham, Lily, Alice. Sounds like the latest list of fashionable names for kids. But actually those monikers identify just a fraction of the more than 150 different types of Florida mangoes. Fragrant, juicy, exotic, even "sexy," according to chef Robbin Haas, the tropical fruit (whose exact origins are either Indian or Southeast Asian) will be saluted this weekend at Fairchild Tropical Garden's sixth annual International Mango Festival. Workshops, tastings, plant sales, a brunch, a discussion with local chefs, and a fiercely competitive auction make up the two-day event, which brings out the latent mango maniac in every South Floridian.
"I've never met anyone who didn't like mangoes," professes Michael Bennett, who remembers experiencing his first mango as a teenager. A chef at South Miami's soon-to-open Southside Cafe, a writer, occasional public relations flack, and major mango buff, Bennett helped organize (and served on) this past year's panel of foodies, which included "Chef Allen" Susser, Dewey LoSasso, and the aforementioned Haas. Richard Campbell, Fairchild's charismatic curator of tropical fruit, moderated the discussion. Panelists nibbled on a variety of fruits, about which they waxed lyrical or critical, shared useful cooking tips, recounted anecdotes about slaving over hot stoves, and fielded questions from serious growers. Highly amused by the cooks' playful banter, the audience was nevertheless left very hungry as the precious mangoes were greedily gobbled by the guests.
This year changes are afoot: At 11:00 Sunday morning a mango-theme brunch will precede the forum, which in addition to Bennett includes chefs Willis Loughhead of the Palm Grill, Tobias Cox of the Loews Hotel, and Miami Herald wine columnist Fred Tasker. When the search begins for the pure essence of ten mango cultivars in a horizontal tasting (fruit will be at the same degree of ripeness), the crowd won't be left smacking its lips in anticipation. A vertical tasting will feature a single cultivar at different stages of ripeness. Specimens will be sampled for acidity, texture, sweetness, and more. A schizophrenic among fruits, the mango can boast subtle flavors such as peach, pumpkin, carrot, apple-pear, champagne, butter, and worst of all -- turpentine. Later in the afternoon at 5:30, heated bidding is sure to occur when rare varieties are put up for auction.
Those who can't shell out 50 bucks for the brunch can still partake on Saturday when from 9:30 a.m. to noon the garden presents "Mango Morning." A vast selection of fruit will be on display and several untried varieties will be offered for tastings. More than 1000 trees highlighting 24 cultivars (last year more than 400 trees were sold in fifteen minutes), fruit, food, and gift items will be on sale. ("I was told they were banging down the fence to get in last year," Bennett notes.) From 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. hobbyists can attend "Mango Workshops" to learn the basics of how to plant, graft, and care for trees, plus how to deal with pests and disease. Plant owners are encouraged to bring in their troubled trees for consultations by mango medics.
Although July is known as mango month in South Florida, the fruit is grown all over the world these days, so there's no longer a distinct mango season. Fine for mango lovers who will definitely flock to this event, billed as the largest of its kind in the hemisphere. The anti-tropical fruit contingent just might find itself being converted as well. It seems that few can resist the seductive allure of the mighty mango. According to Bennett: "I'm very surprised if somebody actually tries a good mango and they can say no to more."
The International Mango Festival takes place Saturday and Sunday, July 11 and 12, at Fairchild Tropical Garden, 10901 Old Cutler Rd. Admission to most events is free with $8 garden admission; the mango brunch costs $50. Seating is limited, so call 305-667-1651, ext 3344 for reservations.