The Brazilian bomb
The pineapple is not just a fruit of stunning flavours but carries a world of stories too...
A friend sent a message some weeks ago to say that she was visiting us with Queen Victoria. The curious mind and idle fingers did a quick Google check, and found that the name referred not to the empress who was seldom amused, but to a kind of pineapple.
The fruit was particularly juicy, and we gifted some from the hamper to a friend the next day. This friend responded by lending me her family's favourite book of all time - a slim volume called And the Answer is a Pineapple: The King of Fruit in Folklore, Fabric and Food by Claudia Hyles. I took to it instantly, with its bright yellow cover and the picture on it - Mona Lisa holding a pineapple.
Like a pine cone
I must admit here that I'd never had a close relationship with the pineapple, which, as a fruit or a subject, hasn't really captured my imagination. But this book opened up a whole new world of pineapple-related information and recipes. The name of the book itself is intriguing. I read the first few pages and found that it was a stock answer that the presenter of an Australian radio programme would give to any question from a listener that stumped him. "And the answer is a pineapple," he would say.
Hyles, who has lived in different parts of the world, collated interesting facts about the fruit from her various sojourns. The ananas sativus is believed to have originated in Brazil, from where it spread to other parts of South America, and was then carried to Europe. On November 4, 1493, Christopher Columbus - hopelessly lost in the West Indies and thinking that he had discovered India - was gifted the fruit by the local people of the island of Guadeloupe.
"Explorers who arrived in the New World after Columbus wrote of the incomparable flavours of the pineapple, whilst in 1533 King Ferdinand of Spain received a letter from Oviedo with the first drawing of the fruit. Soon after this it arrived in Europe and took it by storm," Hyles writes.
The word ananas is from the Guarani language of Brazil. The Spanish thought the fruit was like a pine cone - a piña - and the English drew upon this imagery too. But in many places, including the Hindi-speaking world, the fruit is called ananas.
Symbol of hospitality
I never saw the pineapple as a symbol of hospitality, but Hyles tells us how in the U.S. voyagers returning from the West Indies would bring the fruit home. This would be impaled on gate posts to symbolise the safe return of the travellers and as an invitation to friends to drop by. "Perhaps, this is the origin of the pineapple as a symbol of hospitality in this part of the world," she writes.
The Portuguese introduced the pineapple to India, and it was likely that travellers from elsewhere first saw the fruit here. "Guests of European tables in India certainly dined on them and perhaps they may have even slept under them - as printed images on the Palampore bed-covers and canopies in guest rooms," she says.
In Europe, pineapples were possibly first cultivated in Holland. But the first lot in England was grown by King Charles II's royal gardener, the aptly named John Rose. More prominent, however, was the fruit produced in 1714 by the botanist Henry Telende, gardener to merchant-economist Sir Matthew Decker, at Richmond Green. I found (on the Internet) that a 1720 painting by Theodorus Netscher celebrated Sir Matthew's much-prized pineapple while a 1787 oil by Thomas Stewart showed Rose presenting a pineapple to King Charles II.
Who would have thought there was so much to know about the pineapple? No wonder the Australian radio presenter had that stock response to all enigmas. The answer, indeed, is a pineapple.
The writer Rahul Verma likes reading and writing about food as much as he does cooking and eating it. Well, almost.