Pineapple crush

Sabbatical life has been somewhat derailed recently by visits to brocoli and onion farms.

Not quite the exotic farm destinations I had in mind when I set sail for Costa Rica…But real work has rudely intruded on my peaceful ruminations, and a big retailer beginning with W has me running around talking to farmers of the most mundane vegetables you can imagine to make sure they are not being exploited (the farmers, that is, not the vegetables. But then again, maybe vegetables have rights too..?  I read the other day that the average grown lettuce in the UK has been subjected to 100 different chemical sprays by the time it hits the supermarket shelf…time to stand up for lettuce rights?)

There have been highlights though.. Like the wonderful Señor Alvero Gonzalez, small strawberry farmer with BIG personality, who not only had a fine crop of ‘reds’, but was packing them with little chocolate pots to dip them in.. What a great idea! We feasted.

But I did get to my pineapple farm eventually..

Prickly customer

It was in the pursuit of this prickly friend that I was first lured to this corner of the world..Costa Rica is the largest exporter in the world of the things, and yet despite its reputation for being green and progressive, its pineapple farms – some of them equivalent in size to more than 1,800 football pitches – are full of appalling evidence to the contrary –  not least underpaid, overworked immigrants exposed to a cocktail of chemicals, and communities and wildlife sick from polluted rivers and soil.. A sweet promise, a sour story..

In the course of this pursuit, I read a fascinating biography of the pineapple that  I found in the V&A bookshop.  Since its discovery in the Brazilian jungle  500 years ago (in the heart of a man-eating tribal community), the pineapple has, the writer argues, reflected the various dreams, obsessions and anxieties of the British, (other) European and American people.  Some interesting slices of the pineapple’s history:

1. (For nerds) It is one of natures most perfect example of Divine Proportion, or the Golden Mean. That is, owing to the order and symmetry of the ‘eyes’ on its shell, it is mathematically perfect (Apparently the evolutionary purpose of being perfect is that it takes less effort to grow..)

2.  Pineapples played a very meaningful role in history. They became a fruity icon of imperial mastery. Whoever laid their hands on the King of Fruits first could demonstrate that they had truly conquered foreign and exotic lands and was not to be messed with.  King Ferdinand of Spain got first dibs, then Charles II, to whose fanciful notions of grandeur it appealed.  Oliver Cromwell found it vulgar and bourgeoise and banned it. (Not known for his sense of fun or liking of kings generally…with a face like that, not hard to imagine…)

Cromwell the pineapple hater

3. The Dutch got fed up with shipping it across the oceans and decided to grow it in greenhouses  at the equivalent cost of about GBP500 per pineapple – to the outrage and indignation of Edwardian gentlefolk, who were trying to do the same in inferior, draughty greenhouses.

4.  People used to rent pineapples at posh dinner parties to impress their guests. The Prada handbag of its day, a pineapple gracing the table said as much about a hostess’ rank as it did about her resourcefulness.  Rented by the day, it would do a few dinner party rounds and then be sold on to more affluent clients who actually ate it.

And then suddenly it became all the rage to have pineapple shaped features on one’s house and teapots!

Pineapple shaped folly in Scotland

5. It even played a role in the American War of Independence..The ultimate manifestation of pompous colonial extravagance,  possessing a pinery meant that you probably had a fondness for all things British, including Mad King George, and were therefore an enemy of the people.

A fruit to be respected, therefore.  The fact that it ended up rather ignominiously served up in Mrs Beetons recipe book as a mere tinned and sliced accompaniment to gammon is rather sad I thought.

So seeing them live was rather exciting. There were no farmers or immigrant workers being exploited on this farm at time of writing, just a few cheery Nicaraguans on a tractor off for their lunch break..

Harvest crew

My farmer friend (not your conventional type – a Serbian who had arrived in Costa Rica 15 years ago with a suitcase, 3 small children and $200, on the run from his imploding country)  admitted his cocktail of (14) chemicals was the only way he could meet production targets and make money.  Going organic not an option if you want scale and turnover, he said. The poor old pineapple has its hormones ‘forced’ to flower and fruit in a shorter time as a result. Here is a one that has just had a dose of the pill…

Hormone treatment

So it’s not surprising that when it comes to preparing them for packing and shipping off to Tesco’s, that a bit of washing is needed to get rid of (some of) the nasty stuff…

Bath time for pineapples

This did not stop me sampling the stuff fresh from the field, however… and it was just like sunshine…

The fruits of hard labour

I think the most interesting/disturbing fact I learned about the pineapple that day was that it was flesh-eating. Just like the Brazilian tribe from which it originated, in fact. High in something called bromelein, an enzyme that digests protein, this means that if you eat 3,652 of them in one go you might dissolve into a messy goo. Good for dieting apparently, if you like that look. It also meant that the poor old workers on Dole canning factories in the turn of the century lost half their feet from working ankle deep in the stuff….

But pineapples do/can have a happy ending.. Let’s not forget the more frivolous and happy moments that it contributes to life..such as in the piña colada..

I can report that my full ‘farm to pool’ assessment of this particular fruit ended well..


The best use of a pineapple I know..


8 responses to this post.

  1. Liza you legend

    Loved this article. Thank you. Liking understanding a bit of history. Great photos

    Have been telling people that the funny looking item on the outsides of homes has been a pineapple. Only to be scoffed at. Was starting to doubt myself that it was based on something. Great to have the reassurance. Have never never seen a full roof decked like a pinapple though… classic.

    Thanks for a great start to the day. Also for images of lovely wonderful days. Off to rent a pineapple for dinner tonight…..


  2. Posted by annafaherty on September 15, 2011 at 4:08 am

    Pineapples at last! Hurrah. Love the bath time pic. And delighted to see our V&A purchase has finally paid off…


  3. Posted by Nick on September 16, 2011 at 7:10 am

    Rocking that bikini. And the drink looks good too. 🙂 x


    • Yep, well as you can imagine, said bikini has had more of an airing in the past few months than it has in its last ten years.. And a clear correlation between bikini airing and the consumption of piña coladas too.. 🙂


  4. Posted by 5sensecity on September 19, 2011 at 5:10 pm

    What a wonderful, fruit-filled adventure to surface to! Anna’s right – that book’s traveled a long way from that wintery night at the Reading Rooms ;>


  5. Posted by Lillian on September 27, 2011 at 4:19 am

    Hi Liza
    I’m always learning how to get to grips with technology in a new way! And now I’m leaving a comment…I can see all’s well with you and you’re enjoying the wonders Costa Rica has to offer you. I do enjoy your blogs whenever I remember to log on and read. Have you or will you consider a career in writing? All the best, Lillian 🙂


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