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Story of Pineapples | Montreal Dickens Fellowship

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The Story of Pineapples

By Judith Elson

Stacks Image 14
Mr Rose, the royal gardener, presenting Charles II with the first pineapple successfully raised in England

Pineapples originated in Brazil. Long before Columbus arrived in the New World, they had spread to other parts of tropical South and Central America and the Caribbean islands. Different varieties had evolved and indigenous peoples knew that they were refreshing to eat alone or with meat and fish. They used them medicinally, particularly for stomach complaints ,and made what Columbus called “wine” by leaving juice in the sun for three or four days to ferment. They teased fibres from the skin and used them to make netting.

In the tropics pineapples grow easily. Cut off the crown (the tuft of leaves on the top) just below the point where it grows out of the flesh, make a hollow in the earth about two inches deep and tuck the crown into it. Leave it alone and a year later there will be a new plant with leaves several feet high. A stalk will grow up through the middle and a pineapple will form on the top of this stalk. It will take ten months to grow and ripen. Each plant produces one fruit every year for four or five years.

Columbus tasted his first pineapple on his second voyage when he arrived in Guadaloupe. Then he went on to Hispaniola where he found a larger, sweeter, juicier variety. He called the pineapple the KING OF FRUITS and took a large quantity back to Spain. Unfortunately, the pineapples did not survive the long sea voyage; only one was in fit condition to be presented to King Ferdinand, the rest were completely rotten. Soon many European nations were claiming parts of tropical America and the Caribbean. The sailors, soldiers and settlers took home or sent home glowing reports of the indescribably delicious fruit. Many attempts were made to grow pineapples in Europe, but all were unsuccessful. Pineapples need tropical heat and humidity throughout the year. Very few reached Europe without rotting completely. Queen Elizabeth 1 received one, and there is a story that when Louis X1V received his first fruit he bit straight into it without peeling it first and cut his lip on the sharp skin.

It was almost two hundred years before the Dutch, closely followed by the English, developed hot-houses in which pineapples could be grown. In the Netherlands this was a project supported by the ruler, William of Orange, and a Dutch woman grew the first indoor pineapple in 1687. A year later, William of Orange became William 111 of Great Britain and moved to London. Right away he commissioned several hot-houses to be built at Hampton Court Palace. What the King did, the aristocracy followed, and Pineapple Mania was soon on its way. These hot-houses were extremely expensive to build and maintain. Special furnaces had to produce tropical heat by day and by night every day of the year and the plants had to be kept watered regularly. Brick beds were constructed and filled with manure into which the plant pots were inserted to keep them warm. The pots had to be lifted out, drained, rotated and returned at regular intervals. A specialised staff was need to attend to the plants which took two years to grow, and another two years to produce ripe fruit. It has been estimated that the cost of growing just one pineapple was the equivalent of $3000 US. As only the richest members of the aristocracy could afford to do this, pineapples became a huge status symbol for wealth. To demonstrate this wealth, owners of great estates had large stone pineapples carved and erected along the edge of the rooftops of their vast houses. Other stone pineapples were put up on either side of elaborate wrought-iron gates for everyone to see. Many of these are still there to this day. In the gardens, topiary experts trimmed tall shrubs into exotic shapes of birds and animals, and pineapples. Inside the houses, pineapples carved in wood graced the newel posts at the bottom of sweeping staircases, or the finials on furniture; others were carved in elaborate frames for large mirrors and frequently gilded. Dinner services had pineapple patterns, so did wallpaper and fabric for furniture and beds. Tea services had tea-pots in the shape of pineapples. Pineapple Mania was everywhere where there was money.

As the eighteenth century moved along, sailing ships got faster and shortened the voyage from the Caribbean where the main cash crop was sugar cane. Where there was sugar, there was rum, and there were pineapples. Gradually pineapples arrived in a better condition and gradually came within the reach of the increasingly wealthy Middle Classes. People in the Caribbean had also learnt how to preserve pineapple slices and chunks using sugar. These candied sweets were extremely popular. Pineapple pieces were also preserved in a heavy sugar syrup and sent to Britain. Finally, pineapples and rum were combined to produce Pineapple Rum. All these items were status symbols for wealth and also for welcome and hospitality. It was possible to hire a pineapple for a day, just to carry it around as a show of wealth. They could also be hired for a dinner party and used as a centre piece for the table, or on a pile of fruit or sweetmeats on a sideboard

In the Thirteen Colonies, people were luckier. Being closer to the Caribbean, pineapples reached them in better condition and the KING OF FRUITS remained popular. After the Colonies broke away and became a new nation, they wanted nothing to do with Kings so the King of Fruits became the PRINCE OF FRUITS. On the other side of the Atlantic, the King of Fruits kept its title until Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837. Young and popular it seemed more appropriate to rename the pineapple and now it became the QUEEN OF FRUITS.

In the nineteenth century, pineapples are often mentioned in novels. They were becoming even more popular and were increasingly available to all levels of society. Costermongers (barrow boys who sold fruit and vegetables from their barrows in the streets) bought pineapples in bulk from the ships at four pence each. Quality was not of immediate importance and each fruit could be sold for twelve pence, or cut into slices at a penny a slice. In “David Copperfield” David visits Covent Garden, the great market in central London. He marvels at the piles of pineapples he sees there and other accounts confirm that pineapples were piled up for people to see and to buy. Of course, the best fruit found their way to celebrated stores like Fortnum and Mason. Established in 1707, Fortnum’s has always been the King’s (or Queen’s) grocer. In addition to vast quantities of fresh fruit, candied fruit in elaborate shapes formed elaborate displays. An article in Dickens’s magazine “All The Year Round” titled “Confectioner’s Botany” complains about the way fine fruit is disguised almost beyond recognition. Whether Dickens wrote the article himself is uncertain, but he certainly approved of its content and he is known to have visited the store.

What Dickens really enjoyed though was Pineapple Rum. When he died, his wine cellar at Gad’s Hill contained fifteen dozen bottles of Pineapple Rum, 150 bottles! His first novel, “Pickwick Papers”, contains several references. Reverend Stiggins is described as being “easily persuaded to take another glass of pineapple rum, and a second, and a third”. Elsewhere, Sam Weller visits The Marquis of Granby, a pub in Dorking. He enters a room and finds a red-nosed man making toast at the fire. He is using a brass toasting-fork and inspects the bread frequently to see how it is progressing. Every time he checks his slice of toast, he takes a drink of the hot pineapple rum at his side. In a cold English winter, hot toddies were very acceptable and pineapple rum was particularly popular.

Gradually, after Dickens’s death in 1870, pineapples lost their prestige as symbols of wealth as they became universally available, especially after canning became popular in the twentieth century. Today, we enjoy them as fresh fruit, in salads, in cakes, and with pork, ham and chicken in many recipes. Pineapple Rum is no longer easily available, but it is easy to make.

THE RECIPE: take equal quantities of pineapple juice and rum (dark for preference), add a little sugar to taste and there you are. For a hot toddy, the rum may be heated, or a little hot water can be added before drinking. In summer, drink it cold with ice.

Ice was another luxury for the Victorians, but ice cream and sherbet became great favourites. Pineapple ice cream was particularly popular. Ice cream moulds were available for domestic use, including one in the shape of a pineapple. The mould was packed with pineapple ice cream except for the leaves of the crown for which pistachio ice cream was recommended. Frozen hard before it was unmoulded, the resulting pineapple made a spectacular conclusion to any dinner party.

Pineapples still remain popular today and medically their value is recognised. They are antioxydants and are known to contain a digestive enzyme called bromelain. This aids digestion and can ease other stomach complaints exactly as the indigenous peoples of the tropical Americas realised centuries ago.

Judith Elson
February, 2021