There are bananas for eating and bananas for cooking. Bananas for boiling and bananas for frying. There are bananas with exotic sounding names: Cuban Red, Blue Java, Lady Finger, Orinico, Poovan, Rasthali, Manzana (which does, indeed, taste more like an apple). I wish I knew (and could taste!) all of them, because there are more than a thousand varieties. Somewhere there must be a database of all those names, all those varieties, hopefully all those genomes.
The Cavendish variety, so important to the market today that bananas are the world’s most popular fruit, is actually not the one that made the fruit so famous. It’s actually an inferior variety, in terms of taste. But it travels well, and that is the bottom line when it comes to the exportation and importation of produce.
Bananas gained popularity in the United States as far back as the 1800s, and the variety that made a name for the industry was the far superior Michel Gros. Unfortunately the modus operandi of agribusiness then (and unfortunately still) is to clear land (in this case, Rain forests) and plant mono culture crop. And mono culture usually equals vulnerability. In the early 1900s a fungal disease started spreading through the plantations and within half a century the Michel Gros came close to extinction, and has certainly disappeared from the markets. (For those too young to remember, the title of this post was actually a hit song in 1923 in response to this culinary disaster.)
Enter the Cavendish, a Vietnamese variety that appeared to be immune to the “Panama disease”. So it became the banana of choice in plantations throughout Latin America in the same mono culture scheme as before. (I don’t think I need to spell out the next, unfortunate step in this story…)
But the story doesn’t really end there. With so many varieties of banana around the world there’s no need to be limited by this historical way of doing things. In fact, an element of terroir has recently come into play with the fruit. An Indian banana variety, Nanjangud Bale has been patented under the Geographical Indication (GI) status granted to local communities to patent unique naturally occurring fruits and vegetables.
Nanjangud Bale grows in the South Indian state of Karnataka. Practically a neighbor! I think a field trip is in order.