Tenerife farmers smitten by the lure of red bananas

Red bananas. Waiting in the south Tenerife port of Los Cristianos for the ferry to the smaller island of La Gomera, I read in a local newspaper that a Tenerife farmer had successfully grown red bananas and they would soon be cultivated in the Canaries.

Bananas don’t come only in yellow, and are not always the variety popular in banana splits.

Your correspondent knows a thing or two about bananas, having lived among them for long or short periods over three decades, and having once upon a time owned his very own banana plantation, with all of 27 plants in production.

I did not cultivate them himself; the produce of 27 plants wouldn’t have made the game worth the candle. Also, even then 30 years ago, the thought of hefting up 50kg ‘piñas’ (pineapple-shaped bunches) up 30m of terraces would make the deepest suntan pale. I donated the plot to neighbours; they worked it, and reaped the rewards. Meanwhile, I sat on the balcony of my renovated Canarian bothán, smoking a cheroot in a style suitable to a plantation owner.

Most of my knowledge of bananas comes second-hand, from evening-time conversations sitting on a stone wall with a complaining farmer, my neighbour and friend. He constantly found the prices too low, the government too greedy and the rains falling on the forests above the valley inadequate. He once conveyed to me the astounding fact that 1kg of bananas requires 400 litres of water to reach harvesting.

He is now retired. We mulled over the red banana idea together. Unquestionably, as they went through the various stages of green to yellow, to orange to vivid red, they would be eye-catching on the greengrocer’s display. Fried or roasted, rather than eaten ‘raw’, they also produce more ‘hijos’ (sons) from the fruit-bearing plant, thus stock multiplies more rapidly.

I’ve seen red banana chips in Cuba and Jamaica, sold in plastic bags at bus stops, and filling stations, and I’ve eaten them in Mexico. They were tasty but savoury, nothing like the sweet bananas we know. Perhaps red banana chips will become popular in Europe and compete with potato crisps in the pub. Plantains, like much bigger, green versions of the yellow, Canarian Cavendish banana are a major element in Caribbean and African diets.

The original Cavendish fruit was called for Sir William, the sixth duke of Devonshire. It was cultivated by his gardeners and dispersed to tropical regions in the 1850s. However, many authorities think bananas first reached the Canaries in the 15th century from Africa, having come there from Asia.

Thomas Fyffe, with headquarters in Dublin, started importing Canarian bananas to the British Isles in 1888. In a joint venture with Chiquita Bananas in 2014, Fyffes became the largest importer of bananas in the world; however, this union was terminated later that year.

Fyffes, an Irish company, is still very much in business, employing 5,000 workers worldwide. Canary Island bananas are famous for their intensity of flavour. Smaller than Latin American imports, they receive less water, and more sun. Like Canarian tomatoes, they are sweeter than those grown in equatorial regions or under glass. Now enjoying an exclusive brand name, ‘plátano de Canarias’, they are marketed as premium fruit. For the EU, the distance between plantation and market is shorter than from tropical producers. The carbon footprint is smaller, and the fruit retains a higher degree of moisture and a juicier flavour.

We have enjoyed our acclimatisation here; the weather has been like a continuation of our Irish non-summer, only warmer. The local people love it. “¡Muy fresco!” they say gleefully — with an inverted exclamation mark —while it rains buckets and the asphalt on the roads cracks and red earth is washed out, to look like blood veins when it dries. The weather suits us. The sun will come, whatever.

As a bonus, migrant birds are blown in by the storms — while the sand on the main valley beach is entirely swept away, exposing hard, rounded stones.

On a sheltered strand, where the small number of visitors gathered to grab snatches of sun, a migrant whimbrel descended, along with a common sandpiper. The whimbrel walked daintily between sunbathers, quite unafraid; I have never seen the like. At home, whimbrels always stay a safe distance out on the slob.

I could only surmise that it was this year’s bird, born on a remote Arctic moorland, and had never seen humans before. It was heading for Africa. The tail-end of Hurricane Joaquin had blown it in.


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