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The Garden Gate: It’s easy to go bananas with such a variety of available fruit

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

Bananas, as a food, are far older than recorded history. Their earliest home is believed to be the tropical regions of South Asia.

The armies of Alexander the Great found bananas rowing abundantly in the valley of the Indus in 327 B.C. He learned that dried roots could be carried long distances and would then grown anywhere that the climate was suitable.

The great migrations from southern Asia carried bananas to the islands of the Pacific. The Arabs brought this fruit from India, and it is thought that the supply in the Holy Land and northern Egypt came from this source. Bananas were found in this area even before the Mohammedan Conquest of 650 A.D.

Trade routes across the Indian Ocean established bananas along the east coast of Africa some time during the first 10 centuries of the Christian era. The Arabs carried this fruit from tribe to tribe and used it as a means of barter for ivory and slaves. Banana commerce reached the Canary Islands, from whence the journey of the fruit went on around the world.

Botanists have decided the banana is not at all native to America. Ancient Indian tribes had no word for it in any of the languages of the Western Hemisphere.

The credit for bringing bananas to the New World belongs to a Spanish priest, Father Tomás de Berlanga. When he arrived as a missionary to San Domingo in 1516, he carried a few banana roots from the Canary Islands. He later became bishop of Panama and introduced the banana to that area. His interest arose from his wish that there would be no lack of food.

Raisins are another ancient food. By the time mankind learned to record happenings and deeds, raisins were already a part of his diet.

Subjects of King David were said to have brought “asses laden with raisins and cheeses to pay their taxes.” By 400 B.C., Armenia had a flourishing raisin export business.

Some time during the 1st century A.D., Asia Minor became the center of production, and raisins held a prominent place in the elaborate menus in the time of Nero.

In 1300, Spain and Hungary were competing for leadership in the world market. For centuries afterward, Spain, Asia Minor and Greece furnished the world supply.

The well-known Thompson seedless raisins originated in Turkey, where they are still known as Sultanas. A man named Thompson brought the first cuttings to California in 1978. The “muscat” had been brought by Spanish missionaries a full century before.

Raisins, currants, dates and figs were among the stores of ships sailing westward to catch the medieval trade. Currants get their name from Corinth and are actually a variety of grape, not a separate kind of fruit.

Always interested in gardening, the European monks of the Middle Ages influenced many changes. Some traveled widely, going as far afield as Rome and Jerusalem from their native European monasteries. They invariably returned with new herbs, root vegetables and shrubs, which they hoped would prove adaptable. A typical monastery garden often held many plants strange to the gardens of the surrounding community.

In his book “A Handbook of Dining,” Brillat-Savarin writes, “rich Romans vied with one another in having beautiful gardens.”

Apples, pears, figs and grapes were joined in those gardens by importations from foreign lands. Brillat-Savarin listed the apricot from Armenia, the peach from Persia, quinces from Sidon, strawberries from the valley of Mount Ida and cherries from the “conquest of Lucullus from the kingdom of Pontico.”

Cultivated plums are a domestication of the wild plums known to the Romans of the time of Cato. Prunes are sun-dried plums which originated in western Asia around the Caucasus Mountains and the Caspian Sea, from where they were carried by travelers or settlers from other climes. French prunes were first brought to the shores of the Pacific in 1856 by Louis Pellir, a French immigrant to California.

Sun-dried fruits have been known about since the time of the ancient Egyptians. Actually, fruit drying is thought to have been discovered when grapes left on the vine after harvest were found to have a delicious flavor of their own. This led to successful attempts to dry other fruits, an activity that has been a boon to the rest of the world ever since.

Credit for first planting fruit trees and vines on the West Coast of America belongs to the first Spanish missionaries. They nurtured them around the Missions, and the devout padres probably would never have dreamed that California would later become the world’s center of dried-fruit production.

But even in the missionaries’ day, surplus fruits were sundried annually and spread before the people on the many feast days of the winter months.

Indeed, fruit, the mot colorful of all our foods, still is included in our occasions of feasting.

It is a source of acids and minerals and may be eaten in almost any quantity. Fruit is welcome at any meal, and the profusion and variety of available fruits in this country is certainly an example of the high standard of living that the average American enjoys today.

And just think of all the jellies, jams and marmalades that we can make of these versatile fruits. How could we face breakfast without orange marmalade for our toast?
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.