There is a problem with bananas. Their shelf-life is perilously short, and there are only so many banana cakes, banana pancakes, banana puddings etc. that even the most enthusiastic banana-lover can consume in a week. The preservation of bananas therefore requires a concept shift towards banana products that have intrinsically good keeping qualities. I have previously written about some of the energetic efforts on the part of banana growers to popularise products such as ‘banana figs’ and banana flour (here, and here) but there is another method that provides some interesting and tasty opportunities.
My story starts with one of the snippets in the Cook’s Scrap Book section of The Chicago Herald Cooking School: A Professional Cook's Book for Household Use (1883), by Jessup Whitehead.
London is eating dried bananas and declares they are delicious. They come from Jamaica, where the method has been patented. Fruit prepared twelve months ago retains its flavour to a remarkable degree. The banana is cut in half lengthwise and subjected to slow drying, which prevents fermentation and decay. It is thought that these dried bananas are to open up a new and important industry. They can be made into wine, eaten as they are, or cooked. – Ex.
Dried bananas are common at the street venders’ fruit stands in Chicago.
This paragraph is not credited or dated, but the impression it gives that dried bananas were something of a novelty in 1883, as the following piece shows. From the American Institute Farmers’ Club, on April 20, 1852:-
The Secretary read the following translations and papers prepared by himself;
IMPORTATION OF DRIED BANANAS INTO ENGLAND.
[Revue Horticole, Paris, March, 1852.]
An interesting fact occurred at the late World's Fair of London, that is, dried bananas from Mexico—the observations of the distinguished botanist Lindley on the subject. In 1834 Colquhoun, of the Royal artillery, communicated to the Society of Arts of London many specimens of bananas gathered on the warm plains of Mexico, called Tierra Caliente, and dried for keeping. The cities of Jalisco and Mechoacan do quite a business in it. They gather the fruit when perfectly ripe and expose it to the sun on bamboo riddles. When they begin to wrinkle they peal [sic] them, and then, in a few days, the banana is dry. During the operation the bananas become covered with a sugary effervescence like the figs of the South when dried in the same way. The bananas are then baled or boxed up, either in their own leaves or something else. They are pressed into packages of about an hundred pounds weight. Thus prepared they are in the same condition as figs, dates, raisins of commerce. On account of their sugary character they keep a considerable length of time.
The specimen deposited in the Crystal Palace was a portion of that which was presented by Colonel Colquhoun in 1834, at which time the fruit was two years old. On examination by members of the Society of Arts, it was found to be of a proper consistence, neither too soft nor too dry, and a very agreeable peculiar taste, something between that of date and fig without any trace of acidity. They have no seeds and so become entire for consumption without any deduction. It was deposited in a Magazine of Woolwich, where it remained until taken out for the exhibition in the Crystal Palace; it is, therefore, now nineteen years old—an interesting circumstance testing its great durability. This old fruit was subject to the examination of the Horticultural Society of London, of the Society of Arts, Naturalists, and of merchants, and pronounced to be in the same state as in 1834, except being dryer. No acid—the same taste—no insect had touched them.
What dried fruit have we, says Dr. Lindley, that can compare with this! Our raisins, figs, and dates would be completely lost in so long a time as nineteen years; if not destroyed by time, they certainly would be by insects.
This remarkable fact raises, says Dr. Lindley, the very important question of extensive commerce in dried bananas. British Guiana, Jamaica, &c., can produce unlimited quantities. The amount of dried figs and raisins imported Into England in 1850, was nearly four millions pounds of figs, and nearly twenty-eight millions pounds of raisins. This shows how great may be the quantity of bananas.
No plant that is cultivated yields per acre any alimentary substance in such great quantity as banana. The potato is by no means equal to it. We will quote the learned men (savans) who have lived in or visited equatorial America—men whose knowledge and veracity are incontestable. "In New Grenada, savs Mr. Humboldt, "they raise about forty to fifty tons per acre. It is at any rate a very large crop, and can be grown in quantities equal to any named, and its remarkable durability vastly increases its commercial value, keeping good many years.
So – nineteen years old and still edible! It is not noted how the dried bananas were stored, but given the alternative methods of the time, it is also most surprising that they had not been attacked by insects or other notorious pantry predators.
The problem generated by the rapid perishability of the banana in an era before technological advances in such things as climate controlled storage and transport was accelerated in the face of a banana glut. As I mentioned in my previous posts on banana flour, for these reasons there was a great deal of interest in banana products in Queensland in the late nineteenth century by protagonists in the burgeoning banana industry. In The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld) of 30 May 1891, there was the following piece of correspondence:
“We have received a sample of dried bananas prepared by Messrs. Reynolds and Co. Eden Valley, Daintree River. … Indeed they remind one somewhat of dried figs, and are said to be excellent, whether used without preparation as dessert, stewed like prunes, or cut to the size of raisins and and used in puddings.”
The same newspaper, in its edition of 4 July, 1891 included a wonderful feature on how to use dried bananas – which was no doubt particularly welcomed by housewives in the Far North faced with a backyard glut and the ability to dry their own bananas!
RECIPES FOR USING DRIED BANANAS.
(From the Queen of 23rd May.)
Bananas are now to be had as a dried fruit, not as an expensive luxury, but at a price considerably less than the fresh fruit. They have also an excellent flavour, for it should be remembered that foreign fruit purchased at home can never have the same rich taste as fruits fully ripened under a tropical sun; for all foreign fruit (bananas particularly), when gathered abroad for transportation, are picked unripe and green to outlive the voyage. These dried bananas make delicious puddings, panckes, fritters, and compotes, prepared in the following manner:—
Pudding (Baked). — Cut ½ lb. of dried bananas into thin slices, then place them in a stewpan that will just hold them with only enough water to cover them; add a little powdered cinnamon, ginger, and a small piece of lemon peel; stew over a slow fire till quite soft (about thirty minutes), then sweeten with fine white sugar and pass all through a hair sieve; add to it the yolks of four eggs and the white of one, 2oz. of fresh butter, the juice of one lemon, and beat all well together; line the inside of a pie dish with good puff paste, put in the mixture, and bake half an hour.
Pudding (Boiled) (Queensland recipe).— Take8oz. of dried bananas out in small pieces, 6oz. of fine breadcrumbs, 4oz. caster sugar, 4oz. of beef suet chopped fine, two eggs, and half a pint of milk; mix these ingredients, and beat them with a wooden spoon for ten minutes. Boil in a mould or basin for four hours, and serve plain or with sweet sauce.
Pancakes.—Cut sufficient dried bananas into small pieces, stew them with a little white wine, grated lemon peel and sugar to taste, and spread the mixture smoothly over pancakes; roll them up, and serve with sifted sugar.
Compote.—Prepare a thin syrup with half a pint of water and 6oz. of sugar, flavoured slightly with lemon, and stew the dried banana gently in this for about thirty minutes; remove the bananas when sufficiently done and lay them in a glass dish; strain and reduce the syrup, and then pour it over the bananas, which may be served either hot or cold. If the latter, garnish with a little stiff red currant jelly, laid on the bananas.
Cream.—Take ½ lb. of dried bananas, slice them in thin pieces, and then gently stew in a pint of good cream, with a little ginger; when tolerably thick, strain, add sugar to taste, and flavour with rosewater.