Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Social History of the Pineapple

Fair Trade fortnight falls in the last week of February and the first week of March. It is an event designed to get a better deal and working conditions for farmers in the developing world. The range of goods that we can get in shops at any time would have amazed our fore fathers who would have got their food seasonally.

One of the fruits that the fair trade campaign has publicised is the pineapple, many of which are grown by farmers suffering from poor working conditions in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Until Columbus landed on the island of Guadeloupe in 1493 on his second voyage to the New World the fruit was unknown to Europeans. We owe the Native Americans a great deal for without them along with the pineapple, the strawberry, chilli, potato, cacao beans and maize would not have been cultivated.

The Pineapple was an instant success when it was bought over to Europe although it took two centuries for European gardeners to successively cultivate it. In Britain there is a painting of Charles II being presented with one grown by his gardener John Rose in 1675.

In the 18th century aristocrats vied with each to grow the fruit as it was highly prized. It is estimated that they were valued at the equivalent of £5,000 in today’s money, but growing them before the introduction of effective hot house systems would always be problematic. In the 18th century  pineapples are grown in a 4ft-deep trench in a 40ft-long 'pineapple pit', using traditional  methods; i.e. they are buried under 30 tonnes of manure — and regularly soaked in horse urine. The heat that was needed was generated by a chemical reaction caused by the straw and the manure. Such pits existed at Chatsworth, Shugborough and Alton Towers and a traditional pinery has been restored at Tatton Park.

As the 18th century went on, the pineapple became a common theme on Staffordshire Pottery dishes, plates, teapots, tea caddies and even in architecture where it appears in stone finials at Biddulph Grange and Chatsworth.

In the Victorian Age the ability to grow them was still esteemed and I have a report from Alton Towers of a flower and fruit show in 1870 where the first prize for growing pineapples went to Mr Deaville the gardener to Major Martin of Wotton Hall with the second prize going to Mr Icke the gardener to Sir John Chetwode.

As for working people in the Victorian Age the possibility to taste a fresh pineapple was restricted to occasions such as the one reported in the Sentinel ten years earlier when workers at Washington Pottery in Burslem sat down to a meal prepared by Mr Hodson of the Swan which included a “splendid dessert of pineapples, raisins. plum pudding and brandy sauce”.

It was not until tinned pineapples appeared after 1900 that the need to grow in bulk pineapples when the issue of fair trade becomes apparent.