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International Mango Festival celebrates mangoes from near and far

In Florida, May through August is a big deal, and it isn’t because of summer vacation or ideal beach weather. It’s because the beginning of May means the beginning of mango season, and Floridians can’t wait to see those fruits in their local markets – or blossoming in their yards.

“Some mangos have such minor differences that it is hard to tell,” said Richard Campbell, director of horticulture and senior curator of tropical fruit at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. “Each mango has a different texture, a different fiber, a different taste and different content.”

According to Campbell, there are 2,000 to 3,000 varieties of mangos worldwide, “depending on how you want to count them.”

For Campbell, mangos consume most, if not all, of his time. The 48-year-old mango lover said his passion for the fruit is “in his blood” and has taken him all over the world. He is one of the experts who picks and manages the mangos for Fairchild’s annual mango festival.

On Saturday and Sunday, mango lovers will be able to taste about 30 different types of mangos from around the world and Florida. There will be mangos from India, the country where the fruit originated centuries ago, as well as Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Mexico, Thailand, Cambodia, South Africa, Kenya, Israel and Vietnam at the 21st annual International Mango Festival at Fairchild. The festival gives people the opportunity to figure out their favorite types of mangos – if they haven’t already – and then grow them in their own yards.

Leo Bueno, a mango aficionado in Coral Gables, said festivals are a great starting point for people who want their own mango trees. The 54-year-old attorney has four trees that he has been growing for the past six years in his back yard, and he manages some of his neighbors’ trees as well.

Bueno’s trees consist of Keitt, Lancetilla and Mallika mangos, which bear fruit at different times of the year. The Keitt is a large mango that originated in South Florida and is green when ripe. The Lancetilla is a large mango that originated in Honduras and is red when ripe. And his favorite, the Mallika, is native to India and has an interesting taste he describes as a “piña colada.”

Although Bueno was introduced to mangos as a child in Cuba, he became a mango fan when he returned to South Florida after living in Michigan for nine years. He reads about mangos and picked his mango trees based on criteria of taste, disease resistance and fruiting time.

“I’m not a big plant guy, but I am a mango guy,” he said. “I don’t know about palms, I don’t know about coconuts. I just know mango. They are a terrific fruit and it is a hobby that is somewhat relaxing for me. I tell a joke: You know how an apple a day keeps the doctor away? For me, it’s like six mangos a day keeps the doctor away.”

Mangos come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors and tastes. Florida mangos, which were cultivated with commerce in mind, look and taste good. There are more than 600 varieties grown in the state.

However, not all mangos are as aesthetically appealing, but that doesn’t mean they don’t taste just as good, if not better.

Mango grower Tina Pavel gives one good piece of advice: Don’t judge a mango by its looks. The 69-year-old mango lover from Thailand sits at a table inside the Mango Café at Fruit and Spice Park with two varieties of South Florida mangos – the Kent and the Tommy Atkins.

The Tommy Atkins is a beautiful reddish mango. The Kent is a not-so-beautiful green mango. But when it’s time for the taste test, there is no comparison: The Kent mango wins by a long shot.

Pavel’s love for mangos began as a little girl in Thailand, where mangos are served with sticky rice, a white rice mixed with coconut milk and sugar. “It’s a secret recipe,” she said.

Twelve years ago, Pavel and her husband decided to retire in Homestead after “falling in love with the place.” Her 30-acre property has more than 50 mango trees, which are managed by workers she has hired, now that she is too old to do it herself.

Another tip from the knowledgeable mango grower: “The best thing to go with mangos is water.”

For Pavel, the mango is very special. It’s not just the taste she enjoys, it’s the memory of her childhood that the mangos give her every time she takes a bite.

“I can remember my grandmother peeling it for me,” she said. “I can remember the happiness I felt from eating it.”

Although he works among mangos at Fairchild, Campbell also enjoys his mango-planted yard at home. For him, mangos are a fruit like no other.

“Mangos aren’t pretentious,” he said. “They transcend class. You can make them as fine a fruit or as grassroots a fruit as you want. That’s what makes them so cool, beyond just the total reach across culture, too, because every culture has their way with mangos. I mango-profile people. If I know where you’re from, I know what kind of mangos you like.”