Alyssa Writes

The Banana Museum/Musée de la Banane

Alyssa with her favourite fruit

I love bananas and I eat them in all their forms: raw, boiled, fried, roasted, flambéed…no method of consumption “given the fig”1 in my kitchen. In Martinique, bananas are abundant and an indispensable part of the food culture on the island—so much so that there is a museum in honour of this cosmopolitan fruit. While a source of gastronomic enjoyment, this sumptuous and versatile fruit has a history as well as contemporary political and social implications.

Originating in Southeast Asia, the banana plant was introduced to Africa approximately 1700 years ago. In the 16th century, bananas crossed the Atlantic with Christopher Columbus into the Caribbean islands. During these travels the banana plant changed; through evolution and selection by man bananas evolved from a wild species with black seeds to the seedless dessert variety we know and love.

Wild banana – check out those seeds!

Bananas grown in Martinique are shipped to Dunkerque, the port in France that receives 85% of French Caribbean banana shipments. Despite this long journey, the banana manages to be 40% less expensive in mainland France than in Martinique. According to the 2009 Canal+ program Les derniers maîtres de la Martinique, 52% of agricultural land on the island is owned by 1% of the population. This particular one percent is composed of Békés: Creole families descending from the first colonists. They have been bequeathing land ownership since the 17thcentury. In Martinique, one family produces the majority of fruit juices, three-quarters of all soda, 70% of yogurt and fromage blanc, and has a monopoly on jam production in Martinique. In an economy where the majority of products are owned by the same person or persons from production to consumption, there is no longer an open market exchange. With Béké families owning most factory production, importation, and supermarkets, the Martinican consumer is left deciding between expensive products and more expensive products.

Banana plantation, Saint Pierre
Mont Pelee in background

With the growing importance of supporting local and independent farms, can I really justify buying grocery store bananas? In all fairness, grocery store bananas are local and the plantations essentially independently-owned; however, a responsible consumer buys local in order subvert economic hegemony. So, for my personal enjoyment (eating bananas) and peace of mind, I will compare two dessert bananas: the Cavendish banana, grown for export, and the Pink Fig, grown locally by independent landowners.

Making a Comparison

The Cavendish bananas were purchased at Leader Price, the discount grocery store that stocks only Leader Price branded products. The dessert bananas here cost 0,89€ per kilo. I purchased the Pink Figs at a market in Trinité—the closest market to my house. They cost approximately 2,50€ per kilo.

Green, yellow, red bananas – love it!

Judging a Book by its Cover

The Pink Figue banana peel is reddish purple, and it is short and thick. The Cavendish banana longer, thinner, and yellow with black spots—illustrating optimal ripeness. The flesh of the Pink Figue is darker in colour, almost orange. The eggshell flesh of the Cavendish banana has a slight crystalline gleam, revealing the saccharine flavour I’m about to discover.

In Terms of Texture

Essentially the same for both varieties of banana: soft but holds its shape. The Pink Figue is slightly more starchy, even though when tested for ripeness (based on its softness) they were the same.

Scratch and Sniff

The Cavendish banana smells the way the Pink Figue tastes. The Pink Figue smells like a room full of car tires—ironic given its flavour.

Finding Flavour

Briefly, the Cavendish banana is sweeter. On the other hand, the Pink Figue is more complex. Slightly acidic but still sweet, it actually has more flavour. Compared to the neutrally flavoured Cavendish, the Pink Figue tastes more tropical. I would associate the flavour with a guava or papaya where it is chiefly aromatic.

Pink Figue and Cavendish bananas

In terms of price, your grocery store banana in Martinique gets you more banana for your dollar. In the end, however, it really comes down to preference. Personally, I prefer the sweeter Cavendish banana; others enjoy the complexity and distinctiveness of the apple figues. Whether for ethical reasons or personal preference, take a look around your local market. Think beyond bananas and pick up something unfamiliar, ask your marchand the best way to prepare it and experiment. Boil some breadfruit, fry a plantain, or stew an igname—just have fun! Also take the time to consider where your banana (or any of your produce) came from and at what cost. To my pleasure, many of my bananas (and guavas) come from my landlady’s tree in the front yard.

Ornamental banana flower

1Donner une figue: In the French West Indies, to stand someone up or designate something as having little importance