It’s our favourite summer fruit… but just what is the ultimate mango experience? Benjamin Law heads to Tropical North Queensland, to answer this difficult question
Summer in Queensland can bring horrible things: brutal thunderstorms; killer mosquitos; and brain-deadening heat so intense, you’ll want to tear off your entire face. On the other hand, the endless sunshine also means family trips to the coast, indulgent beach-slothing and – most importantly – the abundance of sweet, fat, dripping mangoes.
When I was growing up in the tropical state, my family and I would gorge on mangoes every summer, buying them in bulk trays before violently stuffing them into our faces until we were close to barfing. Even now, mangoes are my favourite fruit by a long shot. I anticipate the coming of mango season with a fervour that borders on religious. And so, I have arrived at Proserpine airport in northern Queensland as a man on a mission. This is Mango Country. For the next 48 hours, I will drive through these golden, tropical plains to not only find the perfect mango, but discover the best methods of consuming them. I know, I know. I have an awful job.
According to some authorities, mangoes are the most consumed fresh fruit in the world. Global production tips over 17 million tonnes a year, which equates to roughly two and a half mangoes for every living person on the planet. Grown and consumed in Mexico, Israel, Brazil, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines – anywhere it’s hot, really – mangoes first arrived in Australia in the 1800s when Indian traders brought them to Far North Queensland. It didn’t take long for local growers to discover mango trees thrived in the year-round heat of this region.
After an hour of driving through the same sweat-inducing climate, I come across two beautiful things at once. On my right is the ocean – the sparkling Coral Sea – and on my left is what appears to be a giant fibreglass testicle. Upon closer inspection, it’s supposed to be a mango. At 10 metres high, Bowen’s Big Mango is a structure both beloved and infamous with locals. Completed in 2002, the final cost of its construction came to roughly $90,000 – almost $60,000 over its original budget. In that sense, at least, it’s sort of like the local Sydney Opera House – except fruit.
The biggest mango
Christin Short and Kelly Ann Aitken, Bowen’s tourism manager and assistant manager, man the fibreglass mango most days. As well as being the town’s information centre, the Big Mango is a one-stop shop for everything mango-related: dried mango, mango fudge, chutneys, jams and sorbet. Christin passes me a tub of sorbet – made of pure mango, nothing else – while Kelly regales me with one of her favourite mango recipes: her grandmother’s salad.
Usually, I would have been able retain and recite Kelly’s recipe off by heart – it involves mango, vinegar and onion… – but I find my attention is completely taken with the sorbet. It’s incredible. I feel like George Costanza from Seinfeld, when he ate a mango for the first time in his life (“This is like a taste explosion!”). I have no idea what’s been done to the mango to make it this delicious and creamy, but it is clearly some form of black magic.
Driving away from the Big Mango, I chew on the dried mango strips. At first, I’m not hugely taken – the texture sort of reminds me of a boot – but it’s insanely moreish. Almost involuntarily, I find myself inhaling the entire packet in minutes, the stringy sweetness stuck between my teeth like toffee. As for the mango fudge, it melts so quickly in the sun that I’m reduced to slurping it like an animal.
A night at Townsville’s Mercure gives me a chance to wash off my mango-infused sweat in the lagoon-like pool, then I wake up and head north. After 15 minutes on the road, an intriguing billboard pops up for a place called Frosty Mango. The mascot is a cartoon mango with a red nose, tiny black patch of hair and a moustache: a tropical-themed cross between an Italian waiter and Mr Potato Head. The little mango-shaped man beckons me with his hypnotic gaze. I have no choice but to drive towards his headquarters.
The frostiest mango
Almost an hour later, Frosty Mango appears. It’s a wide orchard of mango trees nestled under a ridge of gum trees, as well as a diner and souvenir shop. Alf Poefinger, the German-Australian man who started Frosty Mango in 1989, sells other strange, tropical fruits here too – the date-like Sapodila; the custardy Star Apple; the dry egg yolk-like Canistel; the jelly-like dessert flesh of the Abiu – but mangoes are his main business. Every season, his farm produces 12 tonnes of mangoes that get dried, turned into ice-cream, jams, chutneys and juice, and sold fresh directly from the shop.
“Mangoes for me, are one of the best fruits there is,” Alf says. For him, the local variety of mango, Kensington Pride, is still considered the gold standard. All mangoes on Alf’s farm are hand-picked, which sounds pleasant enough – picking mangoes in the glorious sunshine! – but Alf says it can be dangerous. “When you pick a mango, especially on a hot day, it’s got pressure inside. Sap can spray out, anywhere up to two metres. It can burn. If you get it in the eyes, you’ve got a real problem.”
Back in the car, I find myself driving past several wild mango trees, all unmanned and sprouting green Kensington Prides. It will be another fortnight until they ripen, but I greedily pick them directly off the tree anyway, and shove them into my backpack for later.
Next, I make my way to Golden Drop, a renowned orchard I’ve heard does something strange – and possibly vile – with mangoes. They turn them into wine. It’s not all they do, though. Golden Drop is also one of the biggest mango orchards in Australia, and the largest family-owned one. There are over 17,000 trees on the property, each of them bearing anywhere between 150 to 300 fruit per season – at least 2.5 million mangoes a year, just from one farm. Mangoes grown here are trucked to Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, and shipped to countries as diverse as China, Canada and France.
Grace Parker tells me her late father Charles started growing the trees in 1975, planting 3600 of them on this former tobacco farm. Nowadays, the farm grows four varieties: Kensington Pride, Keat, Pearl and Red Kensington – a sweet cross variety exclusive to Golden Drop.
The mango vino
When Grace offers me a sample of the mango wine, she clocks my worried face. “A lot of people come in feeling very skeptical,” she says, “but a lot of them walk out really surprised.” Rather than being sickly sweet and medicinal like I expect, the wines are surprisingly crisp and subtle. Still, they don’t beat everyone’s preferred method of mango consumption.
“I do remember a customer coming in one day,” Grace says, “and his whole beard was full of mango. I knew he’d had a feed in the orchard somewhere.” Though I’m beardless, I sympathise with the guy.
My final destination is Cairns’ waterside Salt House restaurant, where the pastry chef Rhiannon serves me a killer deconstructed mango cheesecake. I inhale it in seconds. But as I head to the airport, I still can’t stop thinking about the stolen mangoes in my backpack – how good they’re going to be once they ripen in my kitchen and I get to eat them over the sink like some deranged ape. Freeze them, dry them, preserve them, but let’s be honest: fresh mangoes can’t be beat. Already, they’ve started to give off a distinctive whiff from inside my backpack, and their nectar-like fragrance makes me drool. It’s at the airport that I receive the horrible news: you need special permission to take mangoes across the border.
All I hope is that by the time you read this, they’ve found a good home: the stomach of a smart airport customs officer.
All major domestic airlines service both Cairns and Proserpine (also known as Whitsunday Coast) airports. We hired a car with Avis at Proserpine airport and returned it at Cairns airport. Easy.
Mercure Townsville is a great spot for a stop over – spacious, well-serviced and as reliably well-kept as all Mercure properties tend to be. 166 Woolcock St, Currajong, 07 4725 2222
Mango Haven is a fantastically quirky holiday house in Kewarra Beach (a suburb between Palm Cove and Cairns) filled with furniture collected over the years by owners who travel extensively. Address given upon booking; call property manager Tina on 0407 956 056 or visit stayz.com.au and search “Mango Haven”
The Frosty Mango Stand, actually a cafe 70 kilometres north of Townsville, serves a range of cafe-style food as well as mangoes, and (according to their website) “the tastiest ice-cream in Queensland”. They’re also open from 8am, in case you’re after an early-morning frosty mango fix (and really, who isn’t?). Bruce Highway, Mutarnee; 07 4770 8184.
Salt House restaurant is easily one of the most enjoyable places to eat in Cairns, mangoes or not. It’s not cheap ($30–$40 per main), but there’s usually a great atmosphere here, and it’s a lovely spot for dinner over the water. 6/2 Pier Point Road, Cairns; 07 4041 7733.
Golden Drop Mango Winery can be found on the Great Tropical Drive (yes, that’s its name) and offers wine tastings of several different varieties and styles. The property is also set on lush, beautiful scenery. 227 Bilwon Road, Mareeba.
The Big Mango, next to the Bowen Visitor Information Centre, sells mango souvenirs, mango preserves and mango sorbet. Bruce Highway, Bowen; 07 4786 4222.