You don't need to go to Jomsom anymore, or rely on the generosity of travelling friends to savour Mustang's juicy golden and red apples. Mustange syau (Mustang apples), dried apples, apple jam and brandy are now in Kathmandu and Pokhara.
Kashmiri, Chinese and Simla apples are cheaper, but Mustange syau are the Alphonso of apples. Connoisseurs say the appeal of the apple lies in its superb flavour, enhanced by the aromatic presence of high Himalayan water. "The Jumla syau is as tasty but the appearance of Mustange syau bypasses all others. They are number one in South Asia," says pomologist Gopal Prasad Shrestha, who trains apple farmers and conducts research at the Agriculture Ministry's Directorate of Fruit Development.
The apples are brought in by Pokhara Fruits Centre (PFC) in collaboration with Himali Agro Centre (HAC). Three varieties of Mustang apples are available in Kathmandu and Pokhara, priced according to flavour and aroma. There's Royal Delicious (Rs 70/kg), Golden Delicious (Rs 70/kg) and Red Delicious (Rs 60/kg). Dried Mustang apples are popular among the elderly for "timepass".
The apples are cheap in Mustang at Rs 28/kg. But in Kathmandu's supermarkets you could pay up to Rs 120 for a kilogram of the heavenly fruit. "Some supermarkets have complained about our low prices. But we don't need such a big margin. It is unethical," says Amar Baniya, proprietor of PFC. Rhetoric aside, it is a strategic move on the part of PFC and HAC to keep their prices low this year and encourage more people to buy. It's a new market, and they're looking to cement their first-mover advantage before more people get into the act. Large-scale domestic apple trading began last year when PFC took 50 tons of Jumla apples to Kathmandu and Pokhara. Only 30 tons were sold, the rest rotted. "But we saw demand for good apples, and looked for alternatives," says Baniya.
This year they decided on Mustange syau, and are now competing for the retail market with supermarkets. The fruit at the stores looks glossier and is supposed to be of the highest grade. No one says how the fruit is graded or what this indicates, but wholesalers like PFC claim there's no difference in taste. The supermarkets have their own suppliers in Mustang, supposedly funded by Japanese businesses exploring the possibility of an international market.
The capital's apple-lovers aren't complaining about these shenanigans, though. Since the season started in October, 15 tons of Mustang apples have been consumed here. Outlets at the Kalimati Fruits and Vegetable Development Board Market and at Kuleshwor Wholesale Fruit Market say that they sell 60 crates-1200 kg-of Mustang's pride a day. All manner of people buy Mustange syau, from middle class families to the largest hotels in the Valley. Hotels buy over 70kg of apples daily from wholesale outlets. A vendor says: "First-time retail buyers purchase around 3 kg.When they come next, it's up to 7 kg ." The season ends in mid-December, but the fruit is available longer. Mustang is a rain shadow region, so the apples aren't exposed to high levels of humidity. The resulting compactness makes them easy to transport and they keep longer than most other locally available apples.
"Our target was sales of 100 tons this year," Baniya says. But that looks impossible. Snow has already stopped apple-picking in Mustang. "With better transportation facilities in peak season, the apples would've arrived in Kathmandu easily," says Ram KC, proprietor of Himali Agro Centre.
How do the apples get to the valley from Mustang? At Jomsom they board a flight down to Pokhara. A chartered helicopter costs US$ 2,200 per hour, so if the helicopter is filled to maximum capacity-4 metric tons-transport costs for this phase average out to Rs 38/kg . Transportation on mules to Pokhara costs under Rs 10/kg, but almost 60 percent of each load is damaged, and it takes too long anyway. In Pokhara the fruit is loaded on to trucks and sent to Kathmandu overnight at Rs 2 per kg with a maximum load of eight metric tons per truck. If all goes smoothly, the apples reach Kathmandu five days after they've been picked. This is expensive, but it works better than the Jumla apples entrepreneurs tried to bring to the Valley last year. Regular chartered helicopters are available from Jomsom, while air transport from Jumla is problematic.
Apple farming was commercialised in Mustang and Dolpo by Pasang Khampache Sherpa and Buddhi Ratna Sherchan in the early 70s. Pasang Sherpa headed Marpha's Horticulture Research Station, a state-run organisation, when he saw the potential of growing apples commercially. The sticking point for people who wanted to bring Mustang apples to the Valley was high transport costs. Now there might be a way around that. Last year's experiment didn't work out, but this year Mustange syau hit the market in Kathmandu in mid-October to tap into Tihar spending. At the Kirtipur Horticulture Centre's apple exhibition then a whopping four metric tons were bought. (Exhibitions like these are trade shows and attract farmers, distributors, and scientists .) The government, sensing a good thing, announced annual subsidies of Rs 9,00,000 to help cover the packaging, transportation and storage costs of any business that brought apples from Mustang to Kathmandu.
For this year, the subsidies have come too late and remain on paper except for the Rs 2,00,000 packaging subsidy. The Ministry of Agriculture offered a test flight this year, but it was at the end of the season and few logistical issues could be worked out to ensure the system works next year.
The other factor contributing to risk and high prices in the undertaking is lack of appropriate storage space. The 35-odd apple storehouses in villages like Marpha, Tukuche, Kowang, Kunjo and Lete in Mustang help stock some of the annual yield of three thousand metric tons of apples indoors, but more space is needed that provides optimal conditions for apple storage. Fresh or properly stored fruit is more profitable than the brandy, cider and jam that farmers' co-operatives in the region are forced to turn much of their produce into. If the subsidies work out, wholesale prices of Mustang apples in Kathmandu could drop as low as Rs 45/ kg. The Agro Enterprise Centre, an agricultural wing of the Federation of Nepali Chambers of Commerce and Industry believe there's something good here. They provide farmers technical training, help market their products, and lobby on their behalf. "There is immense export potential for cash crops like the Mustang apple. But there has to be proper infrastructure -storehouses, better transport and international grading standards," says Vijay Shrestha, programme manager of the Centre.
Last year Chinese and Kashmiri apples ruled. Next year it might be the pricier, but rather more delicious Mustange syau. The impact of a sharp rise in demand for domestic and possibly international markets is anyone's guess. For now, the prospect of biting into a large, red, crisp, fragrant, sinfully delicious Mustang apple is fomenting seditious tendencies.