Who knew there was so much to the humble pineapple? From pop culture influencer to society status symbol, food writer Nicola Miller gives us the lowdown and a tasty recipe to boot. . .
Go back to October 2000 and the spring/summer ready-to-wear collections in Paris. Stella McCartney was head designer at Chloé. Her swimsuits and sloppy t-shirts with their brightly fecund and cheeky prints of pineapples superimposed over crotches, asses and torsos, would go on to dominate pop culture. But we’ve been here before.
The British poet Charles Lamb would have loved Chloé’s pineapple prints. “Pineapple is great,” he rhapsodised. “She is almost too transcendent. . . too ravishing for mortal taste. . . like lovers kisses she biteth – she is a pleasure bordering on pain.” The science of the pineapple’s ‘bite’ is fascinating. The raw flesh contains bromelain, an enzyme that helps break down proteins, and it is drawn to those in the protective mucosal tissue of our tongues and mouths. By cooking the pineapple, we ‘denature’ the active enzyme. This is why canned pineapple will not irritate your mouth. I am conflicted writing this because I feel as if I am denaturing poor Christopher Lamb’s ardour with cold facts.
There’s a pineapple in my kitchen: there’s always a pineapple in my kitchen. It’s a fruit I often buy and – shamefully – don’t always get around to eating until it is nearly too late. I can get one for 75p nowadays, and I find this quite shocking. And they go over so swiftly. One minute, the flesh is ripe and saturated with sweet, warm juice, and then, moments later, the fruit flies have arrived despite it being covered on the kitchen shelf (I hate keeping fruit in the fridge), and there’s a sweet funk of ferment in the air.
That 75p pineapple would have astonished folks from the 1770s when pineapple rental shops sprang up to satisfy society hosts, and hostesses needed to show off what was a very costly status symbol. The fruit would travel from house to house until it was so rotten it had to be thrown away. Stately homes, southern plantations and expensive New York City houses took to displaying carved stone or ironwork pineapples on their roofs, railings or door furniture, bought pineapple-shaped teapots and Wedgwood china patterned with the fruit. In art, the fruit began to symbolise wealth, the luxury of excess, or greed. The V&A museum owns a print called The Cabinet Dinner, or a Political Meeting by Charles Williams that shows a partly eaten pineapple left on the table as the overly-replete male guests snore. I offer you this nugget of information with no comment other than Boris Johnson seems to have teleported back in time. ‘A pineapple of the finest flavour’ was a phrase deployed to assert that something was the very best of its kind and one could afford to buy it. The ridiculousness of all of this makes me laugh until I think about the fact that Brexit shortages might mean we end up doing the same. The buying and wearing of those expensive t-shirts printed with pineapples is the modern-day equivalent of those grand dinners where the ‘King of Pines’ was the star guest.
Eventually, the pineapple came to symbolise hospitality instead of extravagance, and they became more affordable. Yet for a while, the aristocracy railed against the sight of the ‘working poor’ chomping on slices of the fruit bought from street traders, just as clothing printed with the classic Burberry check became vestimentum non grata among the wealthily fashionable when working-class celebrities started being papped in them. The fact that Chloé’s designs became some of the most plagiarised in the fast-fashion world (with attendant lawsuits) demonstrates the lure of the exclusive – until it no longer is.
If pineapples were more expensive I probably wouldn’t leave them to go over. Yet this is precisely what makes them the perfect symbol of autumn; the season of decay, retreat and the dying of the light. There’s an overblown and tawny quality to the pineapple despite its sunny and tropical image, with ripe flesh the colour of slanting, burnished light as if the autumn sun were conducting its business from a daybed.
Despite all this golden glory, an under-ripe pineapple can disappoint more than any other fruit, and this is why roasting and grilling its flesh can help if your specimen came off the plane a little too early. But for this relatively humble-looking cake, you will need a pineapple (and bananas) that are ripe to the point of salaciousness. The fruits are briefly roasted in butter, dark rum and soft brown sugar before being blended into a rich, dense pulp which is then mixed with the cake batter and baked. You won’t need a whole pineapple; in fact, this recipe only requires a scant two rings of it, so you will have leftovers to serve with the cake or eat with ice cream.
This is a beautifully damp cake that doubles up as pudding if served with custard, ice cream or a dollop of Barbados Cream if you are feeling flush. Make this by whisking 170ml double cream until it thickens before folding in 150ml of Greek yoghurt and one tablespoon of dark rum. Pour into four little pots, sprinkle a teaspoon of muscovado sugar over each one and serve alongside.
RUM-ROASTED PINEAPPLE AND BANANA CAKE
150g fresh pineapple, chopped into small chunks
Unsalted butter for greasing the baking tray
1½ tablespoons dark rum
1 tablespoon demerara sugar
150g soft light brown sugar
2 medium eggs
2 medium very ripe bananas, mashed
225ml sunflower oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¾ teaspoon ground ginger
150g self-raising flour
¼ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
¼ teaspoon salt
150g fresh, ripe pineapple, cut into chunks and roasted
Preheat oven to 200C. Line a 900g loaf tin with a paper liner.
Generously grease a small baking tray with unsalted butter and add the pineapple chunks. Pour over the rum and sprinkle the sugar on the fruit and toss it together. Roast in the oven for 15-20 minutes or until the pineapple has started to brown. Keep an eye on it. Take out, turn the oven down to 180C/fan 160C/gas 4 and leave the fruit to cool.
When the pineapple is cool, drain it, then run through a processor to get a chunky pulp. If you don’t have a processor, use two forks to shred and mash it.
Sift together the flour and bicarb into a small bowl.
Use an electric mixer to beat together the sugar and eggs until they are light and fluffy. Add the mashed banana, vanilla, ginger and the oil and beat until they are well combined, then add the flour at a slow speed until it is incorporated. Add the salt and the pineapple and mix until you have a slightly runny batter.
Pour into the tin and bake for 1 hour or until a cake tester poked into the middle comes out clean. Keep an eye on the cake and if it is browning too fast, cover it with foil. The sugars from the pineapple will cause the crust to go quite dark, though. Leave to cool in the tin and then lift the cake out, holding onto the edges of the paper tin liner.
The Pineapple: King of Fruits by Fran Beauman
Pineapple: A Global History by Kaori O’Connor
‘The Pineapple’, in Dunmore, Central Scotland, a summerhouse-folly built in 1761 by the Earl of Dunmore and surrounded by gardens where his gardeners grew unusual fruit and vegetables. Overnight stays are available via The Landmark Trust.
Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale
Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020