The days when bananas, pineapples and figs grew in Connemara

Why do we continually reduce our cultural experience of food to the humble potato?

Bananas, as well as pineapples and figs, grew in Connemara in the 19th century, although not everyone had access to them

Bananas, as well as pineapples and figs, grew in Connemara in the 19th century, although not everyone had access to them

 

In my ongoing search for Irish food, or rather experiences of food in Ireland, it never ceases to amaze me what we ate in the past and how that sits with what we consider to be within the bounds of our food culture.

November is Food Month in The Irish Times. irishtimes.com/foodmonth
November is Food Month in The Irish Times. irishtimes.com/foodmonth

From seal hunting on the Basket Islands to bananas cooked in cabbage leaves in Kylemore Abbey, the diversity of the experience of food on this island over the centuries is outstanding.

Why do we continually reduce our cultural experience of food to the humble potato and, perhaps, a bowl of lamb stew? If we choose to look beneath the layers, we’ll unearth a diverse richness that will go beyond our expectations. 

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It’s amazing to think that bananas, pineapples and figs grew in Connemara in the 19th century. Of course, not everyone had access to these foods. However, the ingenious heating system for the glass houses in Kylemore produced exotic fruit that would have been highly unusual for the time and place. This desire for the exotic was not new. The Norman invasion of Ireland (12th century) brought a penchant for spices to the Irish palate.

Bananas cooked with cabbage seems like a bizarre configuration for anyone’s taste buds, but the combination does exist and is particular to Caribbean cooking.

The bananas to use are green (underripe) so they hold up to the cooking. Because they are underripe they have a lower sugar content and are more starchy. Hence, their use in savoury cooking.

Green bananas are generally simmered in their skins until tender and then served with salted fish or pork. Thinking of our own tradition of salted ling, I wonder did this Jamaican influence wind its way to Kylemore in the latter half of the 19th century.

How to make green bananas in cabbage leaves

Top and tail the green bananas and wrap in large cabbage leaves. Steam for 10-15 minutes. Unwrap and peel the banana skin away to reveal the flesh. Season with salt and a little oil. In St Lucia in the Caribbean, a national dish consists of green bananas with salted fish, cabbage, tomatoes and chilli.

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