Samui Wining & Dining
Tropical Pick

February’s fruit of the month – the pineapple.

 February’s fruit of the month – the pineapple. It was born in Brazil. And it’s got a huge family – there are more than 2,000 brothers, sisters and cousins. But it’s got its feet firmly on the ground (unlike most of the rest of its family – they prefer to hang about.) It might not be the most interesting of the lot, but it’s got a rosette, bracts, and a terminal bud. And it might not be royalty, but it’s also got a crown.

The first time you see a pineapple actually growing, it comes as a bit of a surprise. Seriously. It’s true. I mean, there’s this chunky, knobbly, round fruit, with a spiky crown of leaves. And most of the time it just sits around on the fruit shop counter – well, that’s where most of us usually see it, anyway. And, before I came to Thailand, I’d never ever seen a pineapple tree – or, for that matter, ever thought about what it would look like either!

So it came as a shock when I saw my first one. A low nest of straight, spiky leaves was sitting on the ground. And rising out of this was a stick about as thick as my finger and a foot long. And stuck on top of that – was a … pineapple.

A pineapple lollipop. I think that God must have made all the trees first – and then he made pineapples. And, having run clean out of trees, he decided to just stick the pineapples straight in the ground. An effective sort of compromise – all things considered.

And this is a little strange. Because, as mentioned, the pineapple is one of the members of the huge family Bromeliaceae, known as bromeliads. Most bromeliads are epiphytic – that is, they grow supported by other plants, but without harming them as a parasite would. And a great many of these are aerial, too – hanging in the air, with long, dangling roots. Although some bromeliads look like mosses or lichens, the vast majority of them produce stunning, complex flowers. And this is the reason they are valued. For their brilliantly decorative blooms. But the pineapple sits humbly on the ground, and then goes on to produce, not a blazing bloom, but … (yawn) … a pineapple.

The pineapple (bromelia ananas) was first discovered by Columbus’ crew, growing in the regions of Brazil and Panama. One of them wrote of it as being “in the shape of a pine-cone, twice as big, which fruit is excellent and it can be cut with a knife, like a turnip and it seems to be wholesome.” Its resemblance to a pine-cone gave rise to the fruit’s English name of pineapple – while its Latin name, Ananas, comes from the word ‘nana’, which was, simply, the local people’s name for it.

In fact, worldwide, there are few deviations away from these basic names. All the Spanish-speaking peoples call it pina. It’s known as nanas by the Dutch and French. And in most of South East Asia, the name is nanas. But if you really want to make an impression in Thailand, ask your waiter for a plate of saparot (say it ‘sapa-lot’.) He’ll like that.

Actually, the pineapple is quite a complex creature, in spite of its low-level, low-key presentation. Firstly, it’s got very shallow roots. And so, to compensate for this, the leaves grow in a spiral, forming numerous small ‘wells’ to trap rainwater. Additionally, the leaves are actually absorbent – and pineapple plants get most of their water in this way – from dew and rainfall.

Another curious thing is the way that the fruit forms. When it’s time to bloom, the stem elongates and puts out a head of tiny purple or red flowers. Each of these flowers (sometimes up to 200 of them) forms a combined drupelet – which then fuses together to form the one, single, fruit head. But, just to make things even more exciting, sometimes things can go a bit wrong.

Now and then a plant puts out two or three heads, instead of just the one. And, often when this happens, these multiple heads all fuse together and give rise to what must be the ‘Franken-pine-apple’ of the fruit world. Really weird.

Mind you, if you do come across pineapples growing wild, don’t bother trying to eat one. When they’re farmed and cultivated, then a lot of care goes into making sure that the flowers (that will become the fruit-head) don’t get pollinated. Because when this happens – seeds form. Guaranteed, you’ve never bought a pineapple that has had seeds. Did you ever consider this? By rights, they should have. But pineapples are one of the very few plants that can form fruit without being pollinated.

And when seeds do form, the fruit becomes bitter. So it’s a much better bet to buy your pineapples from the street-stalls or markets. That way you know they’re good. Or you could just ask your waiter for one.

Pineapples are not the most exotic of fruits. But even ugly ducklings have a story to tell. And when you can claim multiple drupelets, compound heads and 2,000 family members – then maybe life’s not so bad. And on top of all this … you taste nice and people want you.


Rob De Wet


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