The history of the pineapple

Researchers in Malaysia have found a way to turn fibre from pineapple leaves into material sturdy enough to make drone frames. Drones built with pineapple fibre have a higher strength-to-weight ratio than frames made with synthetic fibres and are cheaper and lighter. The project is geared towards finding sustainable uses for waste from one of Malaysia’s biggest crop industries though the pineapple is not a native plant.

Pineapples originate from the border area between Brazil and Paraguay and are one of 2000 species of bromeliads, the largest of which is the remarkable 3m tall Puya Raimondii which can take 150 years to flower before dying immediately. The pineapple stores water in its leaves to help it endure periods of drought though lack of rainfall was rarely a problem in the rainforest where it emerged. Pineapples require soil temperatures of 20 degrees or greater and air temps of at least 15.

I am not a huge fan of the taste of the pineapple (and not just on pizza) but there is no denying it is a striking impressive creation. The plant grows from a terminal bud surrounded by a thick rosette of concave leaves which allow it to collect water in the rosette. The crown, armour and rosette protect it from ground-level predators. The pineapple is also an example of a Fibonacci sequence with the “eyes” on its shell arranged in curving rows of 5 and 8, or 8 and 13.

The first humans to eat pineapples were the Tupi-Guarani people. They domesticated the fruit 2000-4000 years ago along with the sweet potato, the peanut, potatoes and maize. They called the fruit anana, meaning an excellent fruit, and the botanical name remains ananas comosus (Comos is Latin for hairy, or in the case of plants leafy) and it is called the ananas in many languages. The Tupi-Guarani were master traders and by the time Europeans arrived the pineapple spread into Central America and the West Indies.

Christopher Columbus found a pineapple on his second voyage to the Americas in 1493 when he landed on the island of Guadeloupe. One of his sailors noted “some fruit that looked like green pine cones but were much larger”. Importantly they tasted sweet to European palates aware of the high price of sugar. The Spanish called it a pina, for the pine cone it resembled. King Ferdinand was impressed when he tasted it on Columbus’s return and its royal seal of approval made it immediately popular. The writer Oviedo encountered the pineapple in Panama in 1514 and was entranced. In six glowing pages he extolled its “Beauty of appearance, delicate fragrance, excellent favour” and he included the earliest known illustration in his 1535 Historia General y Natural de las Indias.

The pineapple’s striking appearance helped its cause and quickly became emblematic of a new world paradise. Within 100 years it was global, the hardy plant accompanying Spanish and Portuguese sailors on their adventures to Africa, Asia and New Guinea. By 1656 it was so common in China, Michael Boym mistakenly included it as a native in Flora Sinensis, the first Western work on Chinese plants.

It was surprisingly slower reaching English tables due to the Civil War but once established became a phenomenon. In her book The Pineapple: King of Fruits Fran Beauman traced the first pineapple to London in 1657 when William Goodson brought them back from Jamaica which he helped seize a couple of years earlier. He showed Lord Protector Cromwell the fruit which helped him get a promotion. The fruit’s cause was helped by writer Richard Ligon’s history of Barbados the same year which praised pineapples as a “a Harmony of tastes”.

Around this time are the first references to the fruit as “pynappel”, a term originally used to mean pine cone. The addition of “apple” to the Spanish “pina” gave it a very English sounding name. By 1661 Charles II was on the throne and his court was presented with a Barbadian pineapple, a lavish gift to get a petition approved. Again in 1668 at His Majesty’s table the exotic “King-Pine” was spotted in an attempt to impress the French ambassador, who was sure to tell Louis XIV.

Charles’s devotion to the pineapple is shown in a 1670s painting “Mr Rose, the royal Gardener, presenting to King Charles 2nd the first pineapple raised in England”. Beauman is sceptical this was possible in England at the time and thinks that by raised, the painter means “ripened”. She thinks raising did not happen until the 18th century thanks to a Dutch gardener Henry Telende and innovations in hothouse technology. Dutch gardeners found tanner’s bark maintained heat better than manure and could be reactivated easily with a pitchfork. Telende used the method in his Richmond greenhouse to reliably grow pineapples in fickle English weather. His method was noted in Richard Bradley’s General Treatise of Husbandry and Gardening which hoped to see “the Ananas flourish for the future”. The method was enthusiastically taken up and by the mid 1720s every English aristocrat aspired to owning a pinery. Bradley’s The Country Housewife (1732) had the first pineapple tart recipe.

A home-grown pineapple became the ultimate status symbol. Because of their cost, they were rarely eaten. The pineapple was an ornament for the dinner table and would be re-used again and again until it was rotten. By the 1770s there was a pineapple husbandry industry in England and no garden was thought complete “without a stove for raising of pine-apples”. It was the subject of a Malapropism in Sheridan’s The Rivals in 1775 when Mrs Malaprop called Captain Absolute “the very pineapple of politeness” and indeed local-grown pineapples were at the pinnacle of British society. Pineappleware was popular at the dinner table. The height of the folly was John Murray’s Dunmore Park in Stirlingshire which sports a 16m high pineapple temple inside the estate’s walled apple orchard.

By 1835 Darwin on the Beagle could bestow no higher praise on a Tahitian pineapple than it was “perhaps even better than those cultivated in England”. Pineapples appeared in nearly every book by Dickens and Thackeray. But the glory days of English pineapples were numbered. David Copperfield (1850) stared at the pine-apples in Covent Garden market, as cheap imports became available thanks to steamships and refrigerators. Streetsellers in London were calling out “a penny a slice” and 200,000 Bahaman pineapples were unloaded from the docks each year. While they were not considered as tasty as the home-grown variety imported pineapples made them affordable for the lower classes.

The next major advance was canning, first successfully trialled in 1876 on a limited basis. In 1892 the new Zastrow Machine removed the fruits core and then sliced it up. A year later the Lewis Peeler added peeling to the mix and a Baltimore canning firm imported a million fresh pinepples for canning by the end of the century generating 250,000 cases of pineapples.

Hawaiian businessmen took note. The island’s climate and volcanic soils were ideal for growing pineapples. Englishman John Kidwell bought five acres on Oahu to grow pineapples and he established the first cannery in 1892. Word about the superior flavour of Hawaiian varieties quickly got out and the industry thrived despite a crippling 35pc tariff on export to the US mainland. James Drummond Dole founded the Hawaiian Pineapple Co (later the Dole Corporation) and he launched mass production quickly followed into business by California Packing Corp (later Del Monte) and others. With the aid of shrewd marketing, Hawaii had 70pc of the world market by 1940. Fresh pineapple remained a luxury item but the canned product was an everyday staple.

By modern times the big corporations had outgrown their Hawaiian operations and moved their plants to the Philippines, Thailand, Costa Rica and the Ivory Coast. Del Monte and Dole sued each other over patented pineapple varieties. In wholesale prices, the global pineapple market grew to $14.9 billion in 2016. The largest growth market is Asia, especially countries like China, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines though its original home of Brazil remains the largest consumer. Beauman notes that the pineapple retains “the power to infuse our lives with a tantalising taste of the exotic”. You can even make drone frames from it. Just don’t put it on a pizza.

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