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Thursday, 12 September 2013

Fruit of the Wise

The meal with a peel

Bananas and banana plantations figure quite a bit in my novel Blood of the Dragon Trees. During a visit to Tenerife, we visited a banana plantation, and gleaned much information from there; and also took several photographs. Here is a brief article I wrote, previously published, about the banana.
For the last ten years the banana has been the UK’s favourite fruit and it isn’t surprising to understand why.  It’s easy to eat, comes in its own bio-degradable packaging and is good for you. 

Driving virtually anywhere in Tenerife you’ll see the sun glinting off what look like huge man-made lakes – yet in fact they’re covered enclosures devoted to these exotic plants – the biggest plants in the world.  One eighth of Tenerife is covered in banana plantations. 

Banan is the Arabic word for finger, which is what the fruit resembles – and, what’s more, a clutch of bananas is called a ‘hand’...  The Spanish call them platanos, although this means “plantain”.

The banana was probably the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden; the Tree of Paradise in the Koran is also a banana.

Bananas were originally found in Java, South East Asia and India and this is where Alexander the Great encountered them in 327BC.  The fruit moved with primitive commerce and was established in Africa by AD 500.  By the first millennium it was in Polynesia where the people believed that human beings come from unripe bananas and gods from ripe ones.  As a creation belief, that’s pretty ripe...

Learned men in India used to rest in the shade of banana plants while they refreshed themselves with its fruit; thus it’s also called “the fruit of the wise men”.

The first banana plants were taken to the Canaries in 1402 by Portuguese mariners from the Africa.

In 1516 Thomas de Berlanga, a Dominican Friar, took the banana plant to the Caribbean and it soon spread to central and south America. 

Its first British appearance was in 1633 at a herbalist’s shop in London. 

In 1836 the Royal Horticultural Society presented a medal to Sir Joseph Paxton who developed a new variety of banana, naming it the Cavendish – the family name of his employer, the Duke of Devonshire.

Late in 1882 Sabin Berthelot introduced into the Canaries the Chinese or Cavendish banana originating in the Himalaya valleys, often called the ‘dwarf’ banana.

In 1887 the Canaries were a popular place for health cures of the rich.  While recuperating, a woman took a fancy to the fruit and her husband, Scotsman Edward Wathen Fyffe, noticed that the ships of the Elder Dempster line were returning to the UK empty, having delivered their cargoes.  So he used the ships to import bananas.  In 1901 the first refrigerated shipment arrived in UK; the fruit was still considered a luxury.

The United Fruit Company of New York eventually became a majority share-holder in Fyffes.  Unfortunately, at the time of the Wall Street Crash, United Fruit decided to close down the more expensive Canary banana export business in favour of the cheaper “local” Caribbean and Central American banana exports to Europe.  Fyffes’ operations in the Canaries were wound down, closing completely in 1936.

Ten years later, on 30 December, 1946, the first post-war shipment arrived in Britain.  The Land Army distributed one banana to every child and it’s highly likely that several older readers can still remember that little luxury today.

Also just after the Second World War, General Franco – who had been Captain General of the islands – introduced a mandatory regulation into the food rationing scheme throughout Spain.  One kilo of Canary bananas was to be purchased by every card holder each month.  Until then the banana was not widely known on mainland Spain.  This dictatorial move not only supplemented the country’s diet with a healthy food product, it saved the Canarian banana business from collapse.  Today Spain is the principle market for Canary bananas.

This most popular fruit is not a tree but a giant herbaceous plant.  It’s hermaphroditic, that is possessing male and female flowers on the same stalk and reproduces without pollination taking place.

The rhizome (like a large bulb), from which the plant grows, takes about eighteen months to produce the first bananas. It needs well drained ground, lots of water and it’s very susceptible to wind, hence they’re very often kept in breeze block covered enclosures.

When the plant flowers it’s in the form of a large spike growing out of the centre of the trunk and it quickly turns downwards as it opens.  The male flower, a red bud at the end of the spike, quickly dies.  The female flowers clustered around the stem form the actual bananas. The pistils are removed from the tips of each banana which then gradually turn up to the sun to fatten.  Each plant produces a bunch of bananas weighing an average of thirty kilos.

The plant’s rooting system is constantly producing new offshoots and when the original or parent plant is four months old these new shoots are cut away with the exception of one which is allowed to grow alongside the parent.  After a further four months this procedure is repeated and two months later the parent plant flowers and produces fruit.  After harvesting, the parent plant is cut down leaving the first and second generation offshoots which are now two and six months old respectively and the cycle’s repeated.

Within hours of leaving the plantation the bunches of bananas reach the local packing stations where they’re washed, graded, cut into hands and boxed and sent en route to dealers.

A banana contains about ninety calories and is exceptionally rich in potassium, a nutrient which promotes energy, protects against strokes and other diseases, and vitamin B6, which is good for the nervous system, and folate, essential for proper tissue growth. So if you want to boost your energy level, unzip a banana rather than take a glucose drink. - -


1 comment:

Nik said...

No comments here, but a few on FB. Charlianne says: Peanut butter and banana sandwich - yum!
Craig says: Banana cream pie with real bananas - Emeril's recipe is great but a lot of work.
Kay says: Cut a banana lengthways, fill with chocolate buttons and microwave. Heaven.