I went to Paris with The Lads (average age 62 1/2) last weekend for the France vs England rugby game. The game was crap, the French the marginally better of two mediocre sides. On the other hand, the food in Paris is showing welcome signs of coming up to speed after decades of dreary decline. I can strongly recommend Le Grand Huit, 8, rue Lamarck, 75018 Paris. Tel: 00 3 01 42 55 04 55, in Montmartre in the shadow of Sacré-Coeur. It’s a cracking place of relaxed cheerfulness and superior bistro dishes cooked with flair and assurance, and some splendid wines.
However, it isn’t the joy of Le Grand Huit that really stick in my mind. It’s the bunch of bananas that I bought in a greengrocer in the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis on Sunday. Actually, I’d gone in to buy some dates, of which there were a bewildering variety on display, from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, all sorts of sizes, shades of brown, textures and glossiness. I picked out a small box of some that looked particularly interesting and not too syrupy. While I was waiting to pay, I spotted the bananas. They were short and fat, like stubby yellow digits, and came from Colombia.
When I was growing up, I can remember eating similar sized fruits that came, I think, from the Canary Islands. The intensity and richness of their flavour is imprinted on my memory. I gave up hope of tasting their like again years ago until I had some very similar in Sri Lanka about fifteen years ago. And now, once more – dense, creamy flesh, with a firmer core; lightly fruity; sweet note; a kind of flavour fragrance; lively, smiling; balanced; malted, rounded and genial; and just the right size. They may look a touch bruised in the picture, but, by crikey, they tasted good.
They made me realise just how poor the bananas are that we habitually find in the UK – uniform in shape, texture and lack of flavour. Boring, boring, boring. It’s a banana-shaped scandal. We shouldn’t be surprised as international banana business is dominated by four vast multinational companies – Chiquita, Del Monte, Dole and Fyffes. As so often, this concentration of commercial power works against the interest of the curious astronaut. ‘97% of internationally traded bananas come from one single variety, the Cavendish,’ according to the inestimable BananaLink (see: http://www.bananalink.org.uk.).
The history of the banana industry is a murky one. Trade and real wars have been waged over bananas. A dispute over tariffs on bananas between Latin American producer countries, backed the USA, and the EU, lasted from 1991 to 2012. It was eventually resolved, but not to good effect, dare I say. Not only are we left, in effect, with a choice of one banana, but, says BananaLink ’The banana industry consumes fore agrochemicals than any other in the world, except cotton’. Makes you think.
Bananas are the second most popular fruit in the world (tomatoes are the first). We eat around 114 million metric tons a year of them. So 110.5 million metric tonnes will be bloody Cavendish, the characterless cultivar of the banana world.
Variety, not homogeneity, is at the heart of fascination and delight in my book. There are over 500 banana cultivars and how often do we get the chance to tuck into Apple, Lady Fingers, Manzano, Burro, or Red (regarded by many as the finest banana of all), let alone the Crocodile Finger, Tiger, Silk or the Ice Cream banana of Hawaii (aka the Hawaiian banana in Fiji, Krie in the Philippines and Cenizo in Central America). Shouldn’t we have a chance to try some of them at least?
I’ve no idea what cultivar the stubby fellows from Colombia is. They could be Lady Fingers or Silk or Crocodile Fingers for all I know. One thing is for certain – they aren’t the commonplace, common-as-muck, tedious, mundane, bog-standard, infinitely dull Cavendish.
NB. Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck; 1744-1829; soldier, biologist and originator of the theory of inherited characteristics.