A large banana and plantain harvest in Trinidad circa 1900.
Given the recession that we are in, now is the ideal time to focus on growing our own food.
Are you aware that the plantains , were once quite important, not just to the economy but also to the culinary history of the island?
The following history about the plantain in Trinidad and its many uses back in the early years is taken from renowned T&T historian Angelo Bissessarsingh’s archives
"To every bred in the bone Trini, a banana is a fig regardless of variety—Gros Michel, Plantain, Lacatan or the diminutive Chiquito.
When the first permanent Spanish settlement was made in 1592 at San Jose de Oruna (St Joseph), the governor of the time imposed hardship on the native population in the form of a tax or tribute which was payable in both gold and provisions.
The reprehensibly lazy vecinos or Spaniard inhabitants of San Jose subsisted on these tributes rather than cultivate anything themselves so that one observer of the period could note that the plantain was the most important foodstuff in the land and indeed, starvation would be the result of its failure.
Taxation up to the early years of the 1700s continued to be paid in eatables with a bunch of plantains being valued at one real or Spanish dollar.
With the coming of hundreds of French planters and their slaves after the Cedula of Population was introduced in 1783, plantains were of even greater significance.
Slaves for the most part were allowed provision grounds where they raised crops for their own sustenance and for sale. Aside from plantains, bananas were also grown and this is how “green fig” found its way into the echelons of local gastronomy. Whether served with saltfish or cooked with ground provisions in a good oil-down, it soon became a cheap, starchy and nutritious staple that could be turned to good purpose since the tree was easily propagated even in the most unforgiving of soils.
There was abundance of plantains and bananas in the 19th century as cocoa production boomed. When the young cacao trees were set in the ground, they required a lot of shade and so in their formative years were sheltered by banana or plantain trees. Such was the alimentary value of plantains in particular that in 1858 Dr Louis De Verteuil wrote:
“The plantain is extensively used in Trinidad, and on the neighbouring continent: it is a cheap, wholesome and nutritious diet, and perhaps the most productive of all alimentary plants in fact, field labourers contend that it is better suited to the support of their strength, in manual labour, than bread at any rate, it forms the staff of life to the generality of Creoles. Its nutritive value has not yet been ascertained, but Boussingault considers it superior to that of potatoes; it is also superior, in general opinion, to that of cassava and rice: it may rank as a farinaceous aliment, containing albumen and gum. The plantain is used either in the ripe or green state: in the former it is eaten either as a fruit, or prepared in various ways with sugar and spices, as confectionery. When green, it is either roasted, dressed with meat, or simply boiled, and afterwards crushed in a mortar so as to form a thick paste, which is used instead of bread.”
Eventually, local production could not supply the demand of plantains in Trinidad. Well into the 1930s, more than seven million plantains and more were imported from Venezuela to plug the gap. Bananas became a vital cash crop in the early years of the 20th century. Although never produced in the same quantities as the Windward Islands (which even today are heavily reliant on this produce), considerable acreages were planted especially in the rolling hills of the Central Range. Large banana plantations producing fruit mainly for domestic consumption and occasional export to Europe existed in Tabaquite, Talparo, Biche and Rio Claro.
At the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture (forerunner of UWI St Augustine) numerous experiments were carried out in an effort to produce disease-resistant stock and increase yield of both bananas and plantains. In the annual bulletin from the Department of Agriculture for 1928, production tables showed an annual tally of more than eight million pounds of bananas being grown.
The advent of the oil dollar drew labour away from agriculture and production fell but in the lean times of WWII when imported foodstuffs were scarce and the government commenced a “Grow More Food” campaign, plantains found new relevance. Thinly sliced whilst half ripe and dried, they could be pounded into a glutinous flour substitute. Plantain chips also were quite popular and substituted for potato chips at cocktail parties. Even today, no real Sunday lunch can compare to a dish of pong plantain and callaloo.
Source: by the late Angelo Bissessarsingh, Virtual Museum of Trinidad and Tobago
by Angelo Bissessarsingh
Plantation Owners in Banana Plantation in Trinidad in early 1900s
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