The phantom of the phoenix

The phantom of the phoenix

Aylin Öney Tan -
The phantom of the phoenix

AFP photo

The phoenix of the fruit world must definitely be the banana. Just like the legendary miracle bird reborn from its ashes, a banana tree is reborn from its own roots every year. In reality, a banana tree is not a tree; it is only an enormous herbaceous plant, its trunk being a sturdy stem to carry the flowering head. There is confusing when it comes to the fruit, as the banana is not a fruit itself, but parts of a giant berry. Nothing about the banana is as it seems. 

We think of bananas as exotic fruits. True in a sense, but it may be quite the contrary. The banana plant was first domesticated in Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea; some sources date it as far back as 5000 B.C., or even earlier. However most of the bananas we consume today are of an origin much nearer to us. It is the Cavendish variety, and as the name suggests it is indeed very British. This very British variety was first grown in the 1830’s in Chatsworth House, the residence of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, or shortly the Cavendish family. Head gardener Joseph Paxton had a passion for growing exotic fruits from all over the world and got hold of a banana specimen coming from Mauritius. It is believed that he was inspired by Chinese wallpaper depicting banana trees in one of the rooms of the Cavendish house. He lovingly planted a banana tree in the greenhouse of the estate and named it after his patrons. By 1835 there were about 100 bananas hanging on the plant ready to be served to the guests of the Cavendish family. 

This particular plant was the ancestor of almost all commercial banana brands in the European, North American and Chinese market today, with all banana plantations growing the Cavendish clones originally from the Chatsworth plant. Previously, there was another variety named the Gros Michael, also known by its more popular name Big Mike, dominating the world market, but it was totally wiped out by a fungus epidemic in the 1950’s known as banana wilt or Panama disease. Big Mike was delicious and fragrant, but it almost became extinct, at least from the commercial market. The Cavendish variety replaced the Gros Michael as it was believed to be immune to banana wilt but, as said before, nothing in the world of bananas seem to be certain. Now the Cavendish is also suspect to fungus; in Panama alone thousands of hectares were recently totally destroyed by a new disease threatening the future of banana trade worldwide. In Turkey we brag about our local Anamur variety, which is nowadays actually a Dwarf Cavendish, but not the very fragrant original variety. So what we know as a banana today is not the banana of half a century ago, but may be only a phantom of it. I personally was always longing for the banana taste of my childhood, now I understand why it is not just the same. 

People living near a banana grove always talk about the sounds of a banana tree. There is a tearing sound, reminiscent of crying they say, that can be heard in silent nights, while the tree is giving birth to a newborn cluster of bananas. The trunk, or stem, splits open to reveal the growing flower, and the flower eventually opens to expose the growing huge berry, the banana cluster. 

Quite miraculous indeed! Now in the Chinese Year of the Monkey, we hope that we have abundant bananas for all the monkeys and humans of the world and that the Cavendish will survive the new epidemic, otherwise we may remain with only the phantom of our beloved phoenix of fruits. 

Bite of the Week

Recipe of the Week: Banana Tart Tatin is a miraculous invention. My version has the deep woody smell of chestnut honey instead of the brown sugar, giving an unusual bitterness that contrasts with the sweetness of the banana. I think banana and honey have an affinity with each other. It is super easy and super satisfying. Cut bananas in 3-4 pieces ending in finger-like chunks of 5-6-cm.; take care to have them evenly sized. Thickly butter an enamel pie pan, or any other metal pan that will transfer heat quickly, as we need that to caramelize the bottom. Pour a few tablespoons of chestnut honey to cover the bottom of the pan; sprinkle a pinch of cinnamon and grated orange zest; place the banana pieces in a perpendicular manner, cut side down and up and briefly sizzle on medium heat to create a caramel in the bottom. Meanwhile heat the oven to 200˚C. Cover the bananas with a blanket of puff pastry, tuck the edges to the sides of the pan, prick the pastry with a fork and bake for about 35 minutes until the pastry is well puffed and golden. Transfer the tart by turning the pan upside down on a serving plate, and serve still warm. Tastes heavenly with a good scoop of vanilla ice cream!

Fork of the Week: Honey and banana surely have a love affair. Just sliced bananas on a plate, drizzled with a good honey, sprinkled with roughly chopped walnuts is a miracle dessert on its own. I particularly like bitter chestnut honey. It’s not easy to find, but look out for the ones originating from Kastamonu, the Küre Mountains, Şile (so near to Istanbul with great chestnut forests) or Artvin. 

Cork of the Week: Banana loves vanilla. This boozy milk shake is not meant for kids, though they might thoroughly enjoy the taste despite the high alcoholic content. Put a banana in a blender, add 2 cups of cold milk, two shot glasses of Vanilla Absolut or Stolichnaya; one shot of Malibu; a scoop of vanilla ice cream (or walnut flavor of L’Era Fresca); whizz and serve in a big tall glass. If you do not like the coconut flavor, omit the Malibu, and add another favorite liquor, like the bitter almond Amaretto, or any other nutty flavored syrup or liquor.