Monday 20 September 2010

Bananas about Bananas

The recent visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the UK prompted me to reflect on Matthew Arnold's lines in Dover Beach that speak of how
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

It is Arnold's influence that makes me interpret any pronouncement by a 'faith leader' as part of the 'melancholy, long, withdrawing roar'. Nor, I reflected further, is the Roman Catholic Church alone in having passed its best-before date in general esteem. Consider also the banana.

The banana was never destined for the commanding heights of culinary repute. It may have a little ethnic glamour when it turns up in the form of a plantain, but it's not one of the globally and historically important staples. The rise of no empire has depended on it; it has not facilitated the cultivation of any vast tract of otherwise barren land; only a few tens of millions are dependant on it for daily sustenance. Such important writings as Redcliffe N. Salaman's History and Social Influence of the Potato have no banana-based sequels, though even the breadfruit has Mutiny on the Bounty. Its risqué shape and supposedly slippery skin have fitted it for the role of slapstick artist, eked out with whimsicality, as in Wendy Cope's The Uncertainty of the Poet ("I am a poet. I am fond of bananas.") It lacks the seasonality that would confer a fashionable chic today, and, not having been to hand for Napoleon's chef after the battle of Marengo, it has to make do with garnishing Chicken Maryland. Faced with all this we can forgive the banana a chippy sigh: "If this is justice..." But it wasn't always thus.

When the dust of World War Two was settling in Britain, the banana was on a roll. For even if actually serving it on a roll is not one of the possibilities explored by the Good Housekeeping Cookbook of 1948, the banana seems almost poised to achieve the ubiquity that later fell to the frozen pea. Absence had made the heart grow so much fonder that, turning to the index, I find twenty-two entries under 'banana', and having read the whole book, I know there's one missing, which I shall return to in due course. To start, there is the general note in an alphabetical list of fruit, which helpfully informs us that, as well as the common or garden "Jamaica" banana we are all familiar with, there also exists the smaller, tastier, Canary Banana. If only Sainsburys would give me a chance to Taste the Difference.

Having a bland, white flesh, bananas naturally get two entries in the chapter on Invalid Cookery. Invalid Cookery was shortly to be wiped out by penicillin, but for those of us who are invalids at breakfast time this a handy hint. The suggestion to bake them or that they should be accompanied by whipped cream flavoured with white wine doesn't quite hit the mark for me though. I'd much prefer them mashed on toast, or broken into my muesli or hot porridge. Better still, blitz one with a little milk and a dash of grenadine, to make what we in Bristol refer to as a Bananal Smoovie.

There are also suggestions for chilled sweets, including an ice cream, where the already weak flavour will be annihilated; but I have no real objection to bananas in trifle or jelly, or even in a Banana and Pineapple Mousse. We also have here what I suspected was a rather late occurrence of a "chartreuse". This, the OED tells us, could mean "fruits enclosed in blancmange or jelly". The latest example given in the OED for that meaning is drawn from the 1951 Good Housekeeping Home Encyclopaedia, and also refers to Chartreuse of Bananas.

Moving on to hot sweets we have Banana and Rhubarb Plate Pie, which actually sounds worth trying. There are Banana Fritters too, biding their time waiting to be co-opted by Chinese restaurants. At this stage Banana Cake is just a sponge with a sweet banana filling, though with the advent of the food processor it would become possible to incorporate the fruit into the actual cake mixture, and I have a cookbook to prove it. Banana Madeleines are sections of banana brushed with jam and rolled in desiccated coconut. You can also halve your bananas lengthwise and mask them with melted chocolate.

It's with "After Dinner and Cocktail Savouries" that we start to move onto the dodgier ground, where bananas are grilled in devilled butter and served on croutes to produce Banana Bonne-Bouches, or fried in butter and served on eggy bread as Bananas on Horseback. It was at the recipe for Pickled Bananas that I really began to realise things were getting out of hand.

But there's more in the salad section, where we find Banana Mayonnaise, followed by Banana and Mint Salad. "The French", wrote Elizabeth David, "regard the use of mint as a flavouring as yet another sign of English barbarism", and this recipe, which includes both mint and mayonnaise, won't be convincing them otherwise, even if we leave out the nuts.

So that concludes the indexed recipes, and leaves us one more. I wonder if this was purposely left out by an editor who felt, like me, that it had all gone too far. Was the banana already on the wane? Those of a nervous disposition should look away now as I present Baked Banana Steak. I think you will agree that putting the bananas inside the steak, to ambush the unsuspecting diner, is nothing less than a masterstroke.