10th April 1633: The Introduction of the Banana

The banana tree 
blown by winds pours raindrops 
into the bucket.

'The Banana Tree' by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)

Once upon a time I was a Brownie. It was fun; especially the stop off at the chip shop on the way home for six penn’orth and scraps – all those crunchy bits of batter from the warming cabinet. Then I became a Girl Guide and it got a lot more pressurised and I started to think like one of my first boyfriends who, at the tender age of eight, told his Mum he wouldn’t to be a Wolf Cub, because he ‘didn’t want to belong to a para-military organisation’.

Anyway, I did get to go to camp. It’s been the story of my life that I remember things by what I ate at the time and we ate bananas at camp; split down the middle, filled with chocolate, wrapped in foil then put in the embers of the campfire and baked. I never avoided burning my mouth - so anxious was I to scoff the melted contents of the little silver parcel.

Bananas were first imported into Britain in the seventeenth century and were put on sale in the window of one Thomas Johnson, 'Citizen and Apothecarye' of Snow Hill, London on the 10th April 1633.

You can just make out his name on the frontispiece below.

Johnson included a woodcut of a bunch – actually for obvious reasons, it’s called a ‘hand’ of bananas, in his 1633 edition of Gerard's Herbal. Johnson’s bananas might have came from Bermuda, where there was a British Naval Base, though how they managed to reach this country in a fit state to eat is not known. However in 1999, archaeologists excavating near the River Thames in Southwark, found a banana skin, tossed into a rubbish pit with other items, enabling them to date it to about 1560. It belies the above tale, but it might have just been a curiosity I suppose, preserved by a fluke of fate, although I favour a mischievous archaeology student myself.

Thomas Johnson is an enigmatic figure. We don't know that much about him, except he was a highly esteemed herbalist and physician who died during the Civil War of wounds received during the siege of Basing House near Basingstoke. I couldn’t find out which side he was on; I do hope he was a Roundhead..

The banana plant originated in New Guinea but got to India in the Bronze Age and thence to Africa. The enterprising Portuguese were the first to spot its potential and set up banana plantations as early as 1502. In the nineteenth century, Edward Fyffe, a tea merchant, imported them into the UK from the Portuguese Canary Islands and we now eat on average 25lb of bananas per person per year. As I eat about four bananas a year; someone must be eating an awful lot more than that. They are the most popular item on the supermarket shelves and that's why they are so often discounted. Cheap bananas tempt you in there and then you buy other stuff. As ever, Fairtrade ones are the ones to get, the Co-op always have them.

You can stuff a banana with chocolate, or drizzle with maple syrup, mash on toast, bake in breads and cakes, flavour with cinnamon, snuggle into a pancake, flambé with brandy – whatever - it's an amenable fruit, the banana.

This is my secret banana treat.

A thick slice of hot wholemeal bread well toasted; spread with roughly mashed banana, topped with Greek yoghurt, drizzled with honey, sprinkled with chopped toasted nuts - eaten privately with knife and fork. If I'm feeling really extravagant, I might substitute maple syrup for the honey and toasted pecans for the topping. I tried it with pine nuts this time, their waxy texture worked well, but walnuts are good too.

 I like a small glass of whisky on the side. Actually - I like a large glass of whiskey on the side.

Under my tree-roof
slanting lines of april rain
separate to drops.

'Under my tree roof'  by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)

PS. Why did I choose Basho? It's a riddle....


thecatalanway said...

That's lovely Liz. I'll join you in the whisky although I've never tried the combination as I tend to have banana on toast in the mornings. but not too often - I have a strange relationship with bananas and there are long periods when I just don't fancy eating one. People here eat them very ripe which I can't bear. this works out well as I no longer have to throw them away when they get bruised and squishy.
Amazing that they have been around in the UK for so long. I wonder about that 16th C skin!
My favourite banana thing is peanut butter and banana sandwich in nice home made bread. But again it's not something I would want every day.
I wonder who are all those people munching their way through the supermarket bunches?
Kate x

Gerry Snape said...

Ah bananas and chocolate in foil...eaten hot and gooey...a super memory!

Suzy - Sudden Lunch said...

I am actually bananaphobic this a great post!

Liz Woods said...

Thanks all. I used to be married to someone who ate very ripe bananas and very green pears. It meant he never got to eat a banana and I never got to eat a pear...

leyle said...

Johnson received his bananas from Dr John Argent, President of the Royal College of Physicians, who had land holdings in Bermuda.(ref: English Naturalists from Neckam to Ray: A Study of the Making of the Modern World by Charles E. Raven,pub. 1947). Johnson reported that they "became ripe at the beginning of May and lasted until June; the pulp or meat was very soft and tender and it did eat somewhat like a Muske Melon". He also said "Some have judged it the Forbidden Fruit;other-some the grapes brought to Moses out of the Promised Land."