Until last month, I had never been to the Caribbean. Or the Tropics. Or something that could be vaguely classified as either, except perhaps the North-East of Australia. Then, a few weeks ago I had the chance to go to one of the Canary Islands for a short holiday and its beauty struck me with the strength of a long-awaited revelation. I have to say, when it comes to the sea, I am a Mediterranean snob, and I never thought much of the Canary Islands for their reputation of resorts, colonies for the Northerners, etcetera. Instead, while the resorts are indeed there, they can be fairly easily avoided, and make room for a beauty which feels, indeed, almost savage. Nothing like the rather more harmonious sensuality of a Mediterranean island, the Canary Islands are jewels of biodiversity, spanning from beautiful volcanic landscape inland to dramatic cliffs, constellated by banana plantations. Yes – bananas! The sign that I was so close to the Tropic of Cancer as never before.
Bananas. Bananas everywhere. Not disclosed, but rather wrapped, to be protected from the sun and wind, and enclosed within the softly clay-coloured walls of the Canarian plantations, to be found at almost every corner—from the suburbs of the larger towns to the steep patches of land near the cliffs. This is, perhaps, what I found most charming of the Canarian landscape: the beauty of these half-hidden bananas inside the warmth of the plantations. The bananas, as well as the presence of various shops selling Latin American food, somehow contributed to my overall feeling that I was not so much off the African coasts, or under the Spanish crown, but rather in some tiny island off Central or South America.
This landscape, filled with bananas, reminded me of a novel I taught long ago and I read for the first time even longer ago: Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. Maybe this has got something to do with the fact that my copy of Wide Sargasso Sea has a cover picture of green bananas: unripe, and never to ripen, like Antoinette and her husband’s love; green, like Antoinette’s jealousy and her husband’s sickness but also green like the luxuriantly invasive Caribbean landscape, working as a backdrop for this story of hatred and passion.
In Spanish, bananas are surprisingly called plátanos, and so in fact the same word is used for both bananas and plantains (also called green bananas). The plantains are a recurrent feature in African, Caribbean, and South American literatures, and I heard about them from friends who visited South America, but I always put off trying them, as I was afraid of cooking them in the wrong way. In Wide Sargasso Sea, plantains make up a poor but nutritious diet for Antoinette and her friend Tia, since plantains contain more starch than bananas:
We boiled green bananas in an old iron pot and ate them with our fingers out of a calabash and after we had eaten [Tia] slept at once. I could not sleep, but I wasn’t quite awake as I lay in the shade looking at the pool – deep and dark green under the trees, brown-green if it had rained, but a bright sparkling green in the sun. (20)
The colour green comes back again throughout the novel, taking various forms: the flesh of plantains is of course not green, but here the colour is a helpful identifier for Antoinette’s complex sentiments towards her home. The shades of green, from the skin of plantains to the reflection in the pool, are a reminder of the green light which will continue to shine over the protagonists. Antoinette’s husband will perceive a ‘green hostile light’ as a sign of his distrust towards Antoinette, as well as his own disgust for the island (86).
Food, unsurprisingly, is connected with class in the novel: when Antoinette’s stepfather, Mr. Mason, takes care of her, the food eaten becomes English – pies, mutton, puddings, etc. – more respectable, however less tasty for mixed-blood Antoinette. Antoinette, the ‘white cockroach’, the white not quite white, misses the food prepared by her Martinican servant, Christophine. Throughout the novel, Antoinette will remember drinking arrowroot and chocolate as a child, and will serve cassava cakes and guava jelly with coffee to her guests. Her husband, however, does not seem to enjoy the local food in equal manner, and the discrepancies between English and Caribbean customs are often stressed and underlined as a division between the two main characters of Wide Sargasso Sea. While Jean Rhys tried to nostalgically recreate the flavours of her native Caribbean, some of these flavours (cassava cakes, guava jelly, arrowroot) still remain unknown to me.
For this month’s blog post, I have fried plantains the decadent way, and then sprinkled them with sugar and cinnamon. However, they can also be boiled or baked in the oven, and their delicate flavour lends itself to be sprinkled with fine salt instead of sugar, to make a savoury snack. In whichever way you’ll decide to enjoy them, bon appétit!
- frying oil of your choice
- plantains (I have used ripened plantains, but I hear green plantains are good for frying too)
- salt OR brown sugar and cinnamon
- Skin the plantains. Be careful as their skin is thicker and stickier than banana skin.
- Slice the plantains thinly or thickly, depending on your taste. If you slice them thinly they’ll be faster to fry.
- Place on kitchen paper to get part of the oil absorbed.
- Serve with salt if you like them savoury or with sugar and cinnamon for a sweet treat. Bon appétit!