Thursday, February 05, 2015

A Food Tale: Trinidad, 1840.

I love a good traveller’s food tale, as you well know, so I was delighted to come across one on the banana. Or was it the plantain? The story is told in Extracts from the Correspondence of Edward Otto, during his Voyage to Cuba and his Abode there, and it appeared in the Gardeners' Chronicle of America in 1842. In the extract below, the author is in Trinidad:

On the 19th of April I went with the family of M. Souchay to Tabureta, their country seat, among the Cusco hills. It is about six miles from Angerona, and is situated on the river St. Juan, in a valley between two high hills. The country is beautiful; and, after four days' incessant rain, Nature seemed to recover herself, and several trees and shrubs began to show their blossombuds. I find more plants for the herbarium; and I hope soon to be able to send some home alive, as, until now, bulbs and tubers were concealed in the ground. Amaryllis rutile*, bulbs of which I have already sent home, is seen all over this neighbourhood most splendidly in flower. I have eaten the fruit, when cooked, of Sechium edule** here, and thought it very good; it resembles our pumpkin, but is not quite so soft. Pisang is baked in the ashes, when in an unripe state, and is eaten with fresh butter; when ripe, it is cut in slices, and baked with butter. It is also used, when unripe, in broth, with meat; but I prefer it when ripe and sprinkled with sugar and eaten with a sweet sauce. Should I find any pisang on my return home, I should like to give a proof of my knowledge of cookery.
* Hippeastrum rutilum
** chayote, choko, mirliton, vegetable pear etc etc

The pisang of which the author was so enamoured is the plantain or the banana. I don’t think it is certain from the text which is indicated. Both the banana and plantain are members of the Musacaea family – the plantain being the more starchy, less sweet member which is always cooked before eating.

The banana/plantain has been cultivated for about 8,000 years, making it one of the oldest, if not the oldest domesticated fruit. As would be expected with a human food with such an ancient lineage, the details of its origin and early history are, to say the least, obscure and uncertain. It appears that it may have originated in South East Asia or the South Pacific. I understand that the spread of the banana plant around the world was characterised by introduction and re-introduction to various areas, so presumably establishing its cultivation was not a straightforward task.

The banana is a hugely important staple food in many parts of the world, but by virtue of its great perishability it was not until the late nineteenth century that faster transport and improved storage enabled it to become regularly available in the temperate parts of the world. This era of banana history has many stories, so I will perhaps cover some of them in later posts.

Today’s recipes are for plantain, and they are taken from Indian Domestic Economy and Receipt Book , printed in Madras in 1860 for the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
Green plantain.
Roast four green plantains, and peel off their skin; grind up a spoonful of dhall, four dry red chillies, and fry in a little ghee; then grind the whole together, adding a little salt.

Plantain Pudding.

Take some plantains, and have them fried in their skins; which when done, you must peel and cut the fruit in slices; add sugar to the taste, the juice of two or three limes, the peel of one cut into small thin pieces, a glass of white wine, half a teaspoonful of cloves with a little butter; this is to be put into a paste, and boiled as an apple pudding. Cream or lemon and sugar with butter is a great improvement.

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