by Esme McAvoy
Bananas are bananas, right? Always yellow and always, erm, banana-shaped. Well, not always.
Here in Colombia bananas come in all shapes and sizes. Some known as plantains are a radioactive shade of yellow-green, longer and fatter than your forearm with firm, starchy flesh that needs to be cooked first. Others are short and squat with rust-red and yellow skins. In Minca, the smallest banana I’ve seen is from our neighbour’s garden. Called a ‘bocadillo’ (‘little mouthful’) or ‘bananito’, it’s a super-sweet, baby variety barely bigger than your thumb that you can eat in a single bite and easily polish off five in one sitting. Others have skins bubblegum pink.
There are hundreds of different kinds of banana yet 99% of those that are commercially traded are from the same single variety, the Cavendish, which may have descended from a single plant cultivated in the UK some 170 years ago. The world’s most popular fruit is so consistently uniform in size and shape you can buy a one-size-fits-all, ‘anti-squish’ plastic case – the ‘banana guard’ – to protect your individual banana without a thought that it might not fit.
There’s no botanical difference between bananas and plantains and the names are more to do with how we eat them. Plantains are a bit of a rarity in the UK but here they’re a staple food and the markets are full of them in various stages of ripeness. They are the fourth most important food in the world after wheat, rice and maize.
Every couple of weeks, our gardener Luis will chop down a mighty bunch of bananas or plantains from the palms we have in the garden with an expert hack of the machete. The waist-height bunch is shared out between the neighbours and we hang ours beneath the thatched roof of the terrace, within arm’s reach of the kitchen. What we might call a bunch of bananas back home – a cluster of around 10-12 fruits – is really called a ‘hand’. A bunch is actually all the ‘hands’ on the stalk together, often easily more than a hundred bananas. Individual bananas are called ‘fingers’.
Our Minca plantains are super versatile. They can be cooked and eaten while still-green plantains or left hanging up until they ripen and then enjoyed like regular bananas. As green plantains we use them like potatoes, chopping them up to add to soups or to thicken lentil and bean stews.
On the Colombian coast, ‘patacones’ – deep-fried plaintain patties - are a favourite snack. One afternoon, Pacho, a good friend in Minca and true ‘Costeño’ (a person from Colombia’s Caribbean coast), spies a ‘hand’ of green plantains hanging from our terrace rafters and offers to give me a crash course in patacon-making. Fat plantains that are green but not too green are best he tells me as we peel a pile of them and chop them into 4-inch chunks.
He fries the longish chunks for a few minutes on either end, traditionally in heavy palm or coconut oil, though sunflower oil works just fine. Removed from the oil, they’re then squished with a flat stone or the bottom of a plate into thick patties before being deep-fried again until golden brown. Pacho sprinkles them with salt and whips up a spicy tomato and onion salsa to dip them in. Patacones might not be the healthiest of snacks but they’re utterly delicious, full of energy and prove to be a hit with pretty much every hungry backpacker we’ve had to stay.
One of my favourite plantain varieties is one that’s sold ‘maduro’ or ripe. They can be ripe to the point of having skins charcoal black but it doesn’t affect the sweet, golden yellow fruit inside. They’re delicious boiled in their skins then peeled and added to porridge or doused in a warm syrup of Colombian brown sugar (‘panela’), cinnamon and cloves. Many Colombian babies are weaned on boiled ripe plantains as they’re nutritious and gentle on the stomach. Street food vendors grill huge peeled ‘maduro’ plantains over hot coals until their natural sugars caramelise and the heat leaves them with a blackened crust but squishy inside.
A little digging online and I discover that Colombia is now the world's third-largest banana exporter after Ecuador and Costa Rica. But the history of the banana trade in this part of the world is a depressing one. Multinational corporations set up the first banana plantations here in the late 19th century, pushing millions of small farmers off their land to plant vast areas with banana palms. Workers were treated like slaves while the companies wielded immense political and economic power.
The history of the United Fruit Company in Colombia, a US-based multinational formed in 1899, is particularly brutal. The company controlled vast territories on the Colombian coast, exporting bananas from port cities such as our nearest city, Santa Marta, to the US and Europe. In November 1928, enslaved banana plantation workers began a strike near Santa Marta. On 6 December, the Colombian army opened fire on crowds of strikers gathered in the central square of the town of Ciénaga. Nobody knows for sure how many workers were murdered but some estimate it to be over 2,000.
Members of the Colombian congress later alleged that the army had acted under instructions from the United Fruit Company.
Another big problem with the mass production of just one variety of banana is the risk of disease. In the early 1900s, United Fruit’s plantations in Panama were struck down with a disease that wiped out whole plantations and led to growers resorting to a different, resistant variety. The survival of today’s lone commercial banana, the Cavendish, is also precarious. Bananas in Asia have been hit by a new disease and experts believe the plantations in Central and South America will succumb next. Attempts to keep them disease-free have led to bananas becoming one of the most chemically-treated fruits in the world.
Buying organic will help cut the pesticide use but opting for bananas that are also fair-trade means that those picking your fruits are working under better conditions with at least minimum rights. One in four bananas sold in the UK is fairly-traded but there’s still a long way to go: