Photo by Patricia Esteve
The story of the banana is long, chequered and dastardly enough for a blockbuster starring the cast of The Sopranos. It starts off with a seemingly inocuous fruit, but grab a-hold of its roots and the multi-billion dollar banana industry continues to be one of the most controversial on earth. War, massacre, corruption and poverty all feature highly in the story of the world’s favourite fruit.
It all began about 7,000 years ago in southeast Asia—probably around Malaysia—from whence the crop spread across the globe in waves: bananas were known to the ancient Greeks by 400 BCE, Pliny the Elder wrote about them several centuries later, and they had turned up in China by about 200 CE. But it wasn’t until 1402 that they finally made their way to European shores, landing in the Canaries.
Bananas were discovered in West Africa by Portuguese sailors and were taken to the Canary Islands as useful, energy-rich nutrition for the crossing. And it was from here that a Spanish missionary, the Bishop of Panama, took banana roots over to America in 1516. They spread quickly throughout Central and South America and were embraced with such passion that a rumour evolved that the banana had existed in the region long before the arrival of the Conquistadors, and had been a staple of the Incas.
Sweet bananas and savoury plantains became a staple of the diet in the Americas in ways they never have in mainland Europe. South American dishes like the richly flavoured stew of sancocho, crisp fried tostones or mofongo—mashed plantains stuffed with chicken, meat or seafood—all feature heavily in the diet, and yet Spain has remained fairly disinterested in its potential as a culinary carbohydrate, using it predominantly in its fruit form, as something sweet.
Regardless, demand was such, especially in the US, that by 1870 a pair of American entrepreneurs began shipping them from the Caribbean to Boston, New York and New Orleans. By 1899, the United Fruit Company had been formed and the banana industry would never look the same again.
Pop ‘banana’ into Google and the first thing that comes up is a recent rash of curiously popular books documenting the rise—and fall—of the ‘dollar banana’ like Dan Koeppel’s Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, and Peter Chapman’s Bananas: An Indictment of the United Fruit Company revealing damning insights into the greed, corruption and bloodshed that drove the meteoric rise of the fruit.
Big banana companies like Dole, Del Monte and Chiquita (formerly the United Fruit Company) swept away huge tracts of rain-forest in Central America to ensure vast flat plains for their plantations, while desperately poor farm workers withstood appalling conditions tantamount to modern-day slavery. Corrupt tactics and dirty tricks campaigns earned the region the unfavourable moniker of the ‘banana republics’. As recently as 2007, Chiquita was convicted of sponsoring Colombian paramilitaries, the AUC, in return for protection of its plantations, and Dole was sued for $3.2 million for exposing Nicaraguan workers to pesticides long since made illegal. Child labour continues to be rife in Ecuador, the biggest banana producer in the world.
All the while, mass production of these ‘dollar bananas’ has made them so uniform it brings its own set of ecological problems, not least that the most common and best-loved edible banana, the Cavendish, could get wiped out by disease. It wouldn’t be the first time. Back in the early 1900s, the banana of choice was Gros Michel, but a fungus called Panama disease all but wiped it out, in much the same way that phyloxera devastated European grape stock.
To use the words of Katherine Mieszkowski in an article on Salon.com entitled, ‘When Bananas Ruled the World’: “The banana we eat today may be natural in the sense that it grows on a plant, but it’s as much a mass-market product as a Big Mac.”
For good or bad, by the turn of the 20th century, the banana entered the mainstream and it wasn’t long before British merchants picked up on the idea of planting the dwarf Cavendish on Gran Canaria and Tenerife. Their methods, however, were closer to the African-Caribbean-Pacific system, keeping farms small and the farmers in charge of production while they concentrated their efforts on marketing the product.
The Canary Island dwarf Cavendish banana arrived from Asia in the mid-20th century and adapted well to its new home. It is smaller, straighter and better tasting, if notably more expensive, but those extra centimos go a long way. The Spanish, you might note, won’t eat anything less.
Like their Caribbean counterparts, Canary Island farmers are small scale, and because they stick to endemic species there’s less risk of upsetting the delicate eco-system that surrounds them. Bananas count for the bulk of Canary Island GDP, second only to tourism, and they are crucial to the island’s economy, providing jobs for 35,000 people in Tenerife alone, the main grower of bananas in the archipelago.
Today, following systems that date back centuries, and using an irrigation system similar to the Arabic acequia to direct water across the plantations, hand-picking and the multivariate approach has actually made the Canaries something of a model. Tenerife currently produces 150,000 metric tonnes a year, 90 percent of which comes over to mainland Spain. Varieties include the delicate and sweet-tasting Ladyfinger, Williams (very pale yellow, soft but rather starchy), Johnson (tolerant to water deficiency) and La Gruesa Palmera, planted mainly because it ships well and grows fast. The cream of the Canary crop is the Gran Enano, which is smaller and sweeter than the rest.
Known for their high potassium content and eight amino acids, bananas are among the most complete food to come in a single skin. High in energy, low in fat, they are the ultimate super food if you like. Perhaps even more so when you consider what is perhaps the kookiest banana phenomenon of recent times.
A cult Japanese diet claims that if you eat a banana for breakfast, followed by a glass of room-temperature water, you can eat what you like for the rest of the day and the weight will just fall off. Meanwhile, it is evidently almost impossible to get a banana after 11am these days in the Land of the Rising Sun.
“Yes, we have no bananas,” indeed.
RECIPE: TWICE-FRIED TOSTONES
During the year I lived in Puerto Rico I became addicted to this Caribbean staple simply sprinkled with salt. But, with the addition of some interesting toppings—slices of crisp fried chorizo on crème fraÎche; sour cream and mackerel ‘caviar’; prawns and mayonnaise; or dipped in tomato salsa, guacamole and ceviche—you have the makings of a tapas feast Latino style. Plantains are available at the South American stalls in the Boqueria, and at small immigrant-run food shops acros the city. Serves four.
• Two plantains, sliced into two-centimetre pieces
• Olive oil for frying
• Sea salt
Heat the oil in a frying pan until hot then turn down to medium. Add the plantains and fry for four minutes on either side. You want them soft, not burned. Remove from the pan, drain on kitchen paper and squash down flat with a rolling pin. The sides will split and give it a pretty, frilly edge. Turn up the heat, return the plantains to the oil, and fry until golden on either side. Drain on kitchen paper and sprinkle with sea salt.