â€˜Painting the town redâ€™ may be a metaphor but the day we landed at one of the farms in Mahabaleshwar, a hill station in the state of Maharashtra not very far from the cities of Mumbai or Pune, it assumed a realistic equation.
It was the last week in the month of April that by strange co-incidence all three of us, meaning my husband, 12-year old daughter and myself, a mom, home-maker and a freelance web developer and writer, found ourselves facing a 4-day break. And what better way to spend it than retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city to more pleasant climes of Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani? As luck would have it, the harvesting season for strawberries was in full swing and the moment we crossed the town of Panchgani, all that we could see on both flanks of the road were vendors selling fresh juicy and enticingly red strawberries.
Having succumbed to the initial temptation of popping one fruit after another of the berry family into our mouths, our curiosity was definitely piqued as regards its point of origin. This led us to explore several farms along the route and each visit turned out to be as rewarding as the deliciously healthy fruit that has never failed to fascinate us.
Most of the farms, we realized, were family-operated units wherein every member contributed towards the upkeep and general maintenance. While the size of the farm varied, a common point shared by all of them pertained to strawberry cultivation being the mainstay and the primary source of livelihood. Some farms also cultivated mulberries and cherry tomatoes but these were secondary and grown in patches not occupied by the strawberry plant.
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Talking to farmers was probably the best lesson in both history and geography that we have ever hoped for. We learned that while Mahabaleshwarâ€™s tryst with strawberries began during the 1920sâ€™, its growth, cultivation and consumption was limited to the British and their families. For the local population, it was by and large the most beautiful and elusive fruit that lay well beyond their reach. The situation remained unchanged for the next 40 years till in 1960 a local farmer was given the first 100 saplings with some guidelines as to how to grow them.
Boom in strawberry production occurred in 1992 when all barriers were abolished and as many as 25,000 saplings that were imported from California were distributed amongst farmers. Although it was a deviation from the usual Australian strain that had traditionally been cultivated in this region, for the local farmers it signaled an upturn in revenue and eventually cleared the path towards prosperity. Today, there are several strains of this fruit that are grown over thousands of acres and during our roulette of farms we were fortunate to have counted at least three different varieties.
What renders Mahabaleshwar-Panchgani belt suitable for strawberry cultivation factors like climate and soil. Being a plateau, this region is saved from the high temperatures that scorch the plains during summer â€“ in fact, it is characterized by mild summers which is perfect for the growth of strawberry plant that thrives on a daily 8-hour dose of sunshine. Winters are cold in Mahabaleshwar and this enables the plant to remain dormant after which they are ready to bloom and bear fruit.
The strawberry bush grows best in soil that is well balanced in terms of mineral content and leans slightly towards acidic, although not much. Therefore, an ideal soil for a strawberry plant to take root and flourish should be medium in terms of loam, contain lower percentages of calcium and should be moderately acidic but definitely not alkaline. Presence of organic matter in high percentage is definitely a big plus as it propels the plant towards good health and a healthy plant is bound to bear big red and juicy fruit.
Next, it was time for us to pick strawberries and we were each given a basket and taught how to pick fruit. While the sight of several acres of bushes stretching towards the horizon with luscious red fruit dangling was unforgettable, the experience of moving along one of the aisles surrounded by fruit bearing bushes had its own unique charm. I must admit that picking strawberries did not come naturally to me and I had to practice a bit before I was able to nip it at the base of the stem neatly so as not to damage the fruit in any way.
Since it was the harvesting season for the fruit, it did not take long for our baskets to fill up which we then carried to the counter for being weighed. Their total weight determined, the juicy strawberries were then packed within a box in two layers and handed over to us. As for the fruit of labor being sweet, ours was deliciously sweet in a citric manner and healthy enough to provide us with plenty of vitamin C and antioxidants. Of course, we had to finish them up in a hurry given the short shelf-life of this fruit.
Almost eight months have passed since our trip to the strawberry farms but I guess it is one of those experiences that remain etched in your memory for many long years afterwards. For my family, it seems as though it was yesterday that we were frolicking in the aisles flanked by strawberry plants, each of them bearing at least a dozen berries.