Hearts of Gold


What makes for a gastronomic epicenter is also home to an unlikely mango farm: in San Roque, Pampanga, the Mama Sita Foundation has cultivated mangoes on par with the mango capitals.

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When we can find mangoes in pyramids at every supermarket, the local palengke, and even peddled along busy roads—this is how we know summer has arrived in the Philippines.

“Gusto ng mangga yung mainit.” The tropical fruit needs a dry period of three months to ripen enough for picking. This is why all our mango provinces in the country—Guimaras, Pangasinan, Zambales—lie along the western coast.

Philippine mangoes are well-coveted, something we do that no other country can emulate—though Mexico has certainly come close with the Manila Mango and Thailand with Nam Dok Mai.

There are different mangoes for every occasion and palette; though we may not know them all by name, we might recognize them through their unique flavor profiles and texture: the Katchamita (Indian) mango that is best with alamang, or the medicinal taste of the Apple mango, or the fibrous Pahutan mango that grows in the wild.

But it is the Kalabaw mango that is most iconic: shaped like a heart of gold, and while small, its flesh is sweet with a svelte pit. Together with the Piko mango (its smaller, more orange cousin), these are the ones I know best from mango floats, mango sago, dried mangoes, or simply cut criss-cross and eaten cold.

Entire provinces and festivals devote themselves to the Carabao mango, boasting theirs is the best in the country and therefore, the world. Yet this distinction is missing in our local groceries.

Among the mango pyramids, there is nothing to distinguish the Carabao mango from the different variants, let alone from which region they hail from. But maybe the ambiguity in grocery labels is onto something; there is some truth in how it is not the land that makes the mango, but the farmers.

In March, my fellow writer Pat and I joined the Mama Sita Foundation on a media trip to a mango harvest in Pampanga—our baptism by fire at GRID, so to speak. After a two-hour bus ride, we arrived at the farm in San Roque, and were greeted with refreshments of fresh buko, nilagang saba, and mais under the canopy of century-old mango trees.

There we are introduced to Kapitan Elmer David, the owner of the mango farm, who led us deeper into  the two-hectare farm to find the mango trees that the Kapitan planted himself over a decade ago.  

Here, the trees are spaced fifteen feet apart to avoid being crowded, and even their branches were shaped as saplings to spread out, maximized for airflow and sunlight. The mangoes are still green this time of the year; yellow would mean it’s too late—the skin would bruise too easily to harvest.

Philippine mangoes are well-coveted, something we do that no other country can emulate.

Kap Elmer teaches us to pinch the stem by the top of the fruit to avoid being sprayed with its stubborn sap. With a gentle tug, the stem snaps easily: the only sign for the untrained eye that the mango is ready. Alternatively, there are poles with nets on the end called sungkit for picking.

(I had tried to follow Kap’s instructions as best as I could, but because of the mango-picking competition that broke out among the family and guests, my competitive nature nearly cost me a ruined shirt.)

The rest of the caretakers in San Roque have harvesting down to a science: exactly 120 days before harvest season, the leaves are sprayed with potassium nitrate so that they flower a week or two after. Next, the fruits will grow, then sunbathed for three months until just ripe for picking.

Before 1976, mangoes were commercially neglected because of its erratic fruiting habits—it would only fruit for a month in a year. The traditional way to coax trees to bear fruit in the off season was smudging, wherein farmers would burn leaves to induce flowering.

That is, until late national scientist Dr. Ramon Barba made a breakthrough: he replicated the effect of ethylene from the smoke with potassium nitrate. His patent was made available for anyone to reap its benefits—saving time and money for farmers everywhere, and tripling Philippine mango production.

From 130 trees, Kapitan Elmer yields roughly 10,000 kilos of mangoes a year—his produce has reached the stalls of Divisoria, been exported to Hong Kong, and bottled into Mama Sita Mango syrup. His trees have yet to peak at the 50-year mark as a centennial crop.

Unlike in other farms, however, Kap Elmer only harvests once a year—if the trees fruit well one season, he says, then the mangoes would be smaller the next. By giving trees a breather to replenish their nutrients reserve, he ensures the quality of his harvest.

While other provinces may rush and harvest pre-maturely for commercial’s sake, San Roque, lets the trees take their sweet time. Bart Lapus explains that Kapitan Elmer waits until the sugar content is just right. Bart is the nephew (and namesake) to the co-founder of the foundation. Growing up, Teresita “Mama Sita” Reyes would board her entire clan onto provincial buses to take them on food trips and harvest picnics around the Philippines. It is with this memory that led Bart to working in farm management for the foundation.

“All fruit should be sweet when harvested at the right time; walang maasim na mangga kung harvest mo ‘to nang tama sa hinog, nasa oras, nasa bilang ng araw.”

But mother nature has always been the great equalizer.

“In San Roque, they do it with pride and passion. Itong ilalabas kong mangga, kahit onti, ‘pag ito natikman mo, masasarapan ka.”

Among the low-hanging branches, there are mangoes wrapped in newspapers. Kap explains that this helps protect mangoes from kurikong (cecid flies) without using harsh chemicals. Bottles of naptalina or mothballs also hang from the treetops, but their combined efforts aren’t enough to completely get rid of the pest. “I think that’s still a problem to be solved by our scientists, agriculturists, and entomologists,” Bart tells me.

Despite being well into summer, what was an already-gloomy morning gave way to a drizzle. Everyone rushed under tents and umbrellas, arms full with their pickings. Bart explains that such sporadic weather has cost farmers entire months worth of labor.

“Baon sa utang [ang ilan sa] mango growers. Even Kap Elmer will tell us, ‘binagyo kami, hindi kami nakabawi’. Sensitive yung flowers ng mangga. ‘Pag umambon at nabasa yung namulaklak, tawag nila [doon] bukayok—hindi na siya magiging prutas.”

Despite the limited supply of mangoes in the country, many other farmers opt to cut down their trees and plant other crops because of the fruit’s temperamental nature. Bart jokes, “Sabi nga nila mas may tiyansa ka pang manalo ‘pag tumaya ka sa casino kesa sa maging magsasaka ka [ng mangga]. There are only two ways to lose your money: you go to a casino, or you plant Carabao mango.”

Since 1982, the Mama Sita Foundation has helped to foster culinary heritage and agricultural sustainability in the Philippines. Together with different government agencies and local scientists—the foundation has helped farms introduce cultivars, like the Luz calamansi, the Mama Sita Makopa, and the Mama Sita Banana, as well as adopt modern agrarian practices.

This is how Bart came to meet Kapitan Elmer five years ago. Word traveled down the Pampanga grapevine from Suclaban—where Mama Sita was helping farmlands rehabilitate from mono-cropping—down to San Roque. Since then, Mama Sita has aided farmers thrive in the unlikely mango province.

Many Filipinos believe that if a fruit is good, the seed is worth saving. My own mom tells me, “Itatanim ko ‘yan, ‘wag mo itapon yung buto.” (Now, a male papaya tree that cannot bear fruit stands in shame at our backyard.) But that which we plant is not necessarily true to type of what we eat.

It is not the land that makes the mango, but the farmers.

Bart teaches farmers that one of the fastest ways to improve agriculture is by selecting the best planting variants. When it comes to mangoes, it is best to graft seedlings from prolific fruiters—the size and taste of the mango is important criteria, but so are the kinds that do not attract pests.

Coupled with improvements in standardizing crops, cultural management, pruning, and pest control, it’s these developments and insights that have leveled San Roque mangoes to be on par with those that hail from the country’s mango capitals.

“In San Roque, they do it with pride. They do it with passion. Itong ilalabas kong mangga, kahit onti, ‘pag ito natikman mo, masasarapan ka.”

I brought home an entire bayong of mangoes from Pampanga. Between my family and I, it didn’t last more than a weekend.

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