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Anthony Gambrill | Nothing humble about the pineapple

Published:Sunday | March 8, 2020 | 12:00 AM

Sixty years ago, or thereabouts, Jamaica’s legendary hotelier John Pringle approached Art & Publicity, the Kingston advertising agency, to come up with a logo for his hotel, Round Hill.

When he arrived to view the results, in no time at all, he chose a loosely drawn illustration of a pineapple sketched by one of the junior artists. Today, it appears on the villas, the building known as Pineapple House, and on everything else bearing a Round Hill symbol. So it was that Round Hill, once a one thousand-acre coconut plantation at Hopewell in Hanover, became the Jamaican vacation choice of the world’s rich and famous.

Christopher Columbus found pineapples growing when he arrived in Guadeloupe in 1493 and took them, among other rare tropical produce, to Europe. It was the Tainos who had brought the fruit to Jamaica, which probably originated in Brazil and Paraguay. Tainos used to place pineapples or pineapple tops outside their dwellings as symbols of friendship and hospitality.

Pineapples were first mentioned in Jamaica as early as 1657, and it was in 1661 that a coat of arms was first granted to the island by the Crown, which displayed five pineapples. While the coat of arms changed substantially over the centuries, the five pineapples remained in a prominent position.

Hans Sloane, doctor to the buccaneer/governor Henry Morgan, in his final hours, remarked in his classic account of Jamaica that the pineapple was “delicious”. Sloane documented many Jamaican species. His collection went on to form the basis of the British Natural History Museum.

While sugar, rum, and coffee appealed to the tastes and appetites of Britain and Europe, nothing compared with pineapple as a symbol of “a sense of welcome, good cheer, warmth, and celebration”. This was true of the early years of slaves and sugar, where they were mounted on great house entrances like the ones painted by James Hakewill at Rose Hall Plantation Great House in 1820.

Another famous painter, Hendrik Danckerts, contributed to the popularity of the pineapple in 1675 when he depicted the first pineapple purported to have been grown in England being presented to the reigning monarch, Charles II.

Because this highly perishable fruit could not be grown conventionally in a temperate climate, an artificial alternative method of ripening had to be found. A Frenchman is credited with creating the first “hot house’. Reportedly, even furnaces were utilised for heating hot houses. The first pineapple in Britain to be cultivated ripened in 1720 in Sir Mathew Decker’s Surrey garden glass house.

Martin Gaylord, on the occasion of opening an exhibition of food obsession in Cambridge in recent times, noted, “The craze for this strange-looking and costly luxury led to pineapple-mania equivalent to the earlier tulip-mania in Holland.” Historian Mary Thompson wrote that a pineapple rental market sprang up in Europe so eager were people to show off their wealth as the pineapple represented prestige as well as hospitality.

One would be displayed on the dining table on occasion after occasion until it literally rotted because it was too expensive to eat! Despite its desirability, a Jamaican diarist of the period observed that a pineapple grown in Jamaica tasted “far richer” than one grown in an English hot house.

Over time, pineapples appeared in paintings and carvings of front doors, on dinnerware, even printed on wallpaper to convey a sense of hospitality. This also substituted for purchasing one of the hot house variety, which could cost the equivalent of US$8,000.

While the Jamaican coat of arms bearing pineapples was well in advance of its time, the pineapple has remained a potent symbol for centuries. Go to Scotland and visit the Dunmore House with its gigantic pineapple dominating the entrance, or watch the Wimbledon tennis men’s finals, where the winner’s magnificent trophy, first created in 1887, is topped by a pineapple. (The triumphant woman finalist only gets the Venus Rosewater Dish. How’s that for gender discrimination?) To properly view the gold pineapple on both towers of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, you will need a light plane or helicopter.

So named because it resembled a pine cone, the pineapple has been popular with Jamaican households for generations. It is a source of vitamins B, C, copper, manganese, calcium, dietary fibre, and folic acid. The Sugar Loaf and the Cowboy are the two most popular varieties, but the Smooth Cayenne has been reintroduced into the island thanks to its low fibre, juiciness, and rich mild flavour.

In fact, the Cayenne, named after its introduction from French Guiana, is the dominant specie in world production due to its suitability for canning. In the twentieth century, Hawaii was the principal source of pineapples, but today, Costa Rica, Brazil, Thailand, and the Philippines are the leading suppliers.

It is believed that pineapples were first introduced to Hawaii from Jamaica. Hawaii became their primary source largely due to the endeavours of James Dole. In 1922, after repeated disappointments, he converted the cactus-covered Hawaiian island of Lanai into the largest pineapple plantation in the world.

But by the 1970s, world-wide competition and rising labour costs forced the Dole company to move its operations to the Philippines. Still, today, the pineapple remains a symbol of welcome in Hawaii. Through the efforts of the Jamaican government and Jamaica Producers Group Limited, the pineapple is getting fresh impetus, with local consumption and export in mind.