Pray join us, gentle reader, for a quick spot of time travel. It’s the early 1700s, and you are a lady or lord attending a formal dinner at an English country estate. Dressed in voluminous skirts and petticoat or waistcoat and breeches, you sit at the dinner table to find yourself facing a mountain of melons and grapes, strawberries and oranges, all of which form an enormous throne for the most unlikely of fruits: a pineapple, a bright yellow slice of the tropics that radiates sunshine, despite the gray English chill outside. You and your fellow guests are so delighted—so awed!— by this kingly fruit that you don’t notice it has been sitting uneaten for so long that it’s begun to rot.
How did such a tropical treasure become the centerpiece of European social life, in an era before steamships and refrigeration? And didn’t European aristocrats realize that you’re actually supposed to eat it? In the latest episode of Gastropod, co-hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley trace how Europeans’ obsession with the pineapple fueled myth, rivalry, invention, and some truly obsessive gardening—and in the process, created a new status symbol for the elite.
Pineapple mania began when Europeans started exploring and colonizing the Americas. They encountered the fruit for the first time in the Caribbean and then in South America, and their letters and diary entries describing the fruit channel the hyperbole of a lovesick teenager. Take, for example, a description penned by Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés in 1535. He wrote that the pineapple was unprecedented in “beauty of appearance, delicate fragrance, excellent flavor,” and that, “of the five corporeal senses, the three which can be applied to fruits and even the fourth, that of touch, it [is] excelling above all fruits.” “There is no nobler fruit in the universe,” French explorer Jean de Léry wrote of the pineapple. Dutch economist Pieter de la Court declared: “One can never be tire’d with looking on it.” Later, English writer Charles Lamb embraced it with sadomasochistic relish: “Pleasure bordering on pain, from the fierceness and insanity of her relish, like a lovers’ kisses she biteth.”
“They really wrote about it in this rapturous way,” Francesca Beauman, author of the book Pineapple: The King of Fruits, told Gastropod. “One assumes because the sensation of sweetness was still so rare in Europe, that to experience it direct from nature—especially to an explorer, who’d probably been living on biscuits for months and months and months—was very memorable.”
These glowing reports were compounded by an early PR coup when the first pineapple to reach European shores got a royal stamp of approval from King Ferdinand of Spain. After admiring the specimen’s scales and firmness, he reportedly declared that “its flavor excels all fruits.” With all this hype, the pineapple quickly became the ultimate status symbol—infinitely desirable, but almost impossible to get hold of. So few survived the lengthy Atlantic crossing that, Beauman told Gastropod, “Every time one did arrive from the Caribbean, it was big news, whether it was at the Dutch court or the Spanish court or the English court.”
With pineapple demand reaching a fever pitch, the stage was set for what we like to call the Great European Garden-Off. At the time, northern Europe was in the grip of what Beauman calls “intense horticultural competitiveness,” and nowhere was this rivalry more hotly contested than between the English and the Dutch. Not only did the two countries have a history of actual conflict, thanks to three wars fought in the 1600s and competing trade interests, but also, both treated horticulture and gardening as a fashionable pursuit, laying out small fortunes on tulip varieties and poaching the best gardeners from each others’ estates. Much to English chagrin, the Dutch mostly came out on top, successfully transplanting a variety of exotic new plants like ginger, coffee, chocolate and nutmeg from their colonies abroad.
British horticulturists and pineapple enthusiasts must have been furious, then, to hear that, in 1685, a Dutch female botanist (one of very few in the field at the time) named Agneta Block had finally succeeded in fruiting a pineapple at her estate. It was the first to be grown in Europe, though another Dutchman, Casper Fagel, also encouraged some plants to bear fruit later the same year. These pineapples were grown in hothouses, a brand-new invention of the late 1600s: all-glass greenhouses built over peat-fed ovens, which heated the structure from below and piped warm air through them.
As the 1600s turned into the 1700s, the British wealthy, determined not to be left behind, built hothouses of their own, and even hired Dutch gardeners in an attempt to grow the king of fruit on English soil.
Ironically, this horticultural feat only became possible thanks to the work of another Dutchman: the gardener at the estate of economist and pineapple stan Pieter de la Court, who perfected the use of tanner’s bark for pineapple cultivation. Tanner’s bark is a mulch of coarsely powdered oak bark that, as it gently composts, gives off enough heat to keep the soil beneath at a balmy 80 degrees Fahrenheit—heating the pineapple plants evenly and with less steam, which can easily damage them. By deploying tanner’s bark for the first time in England, in about 1714, after years of experimentation and failure, Dutch gardener Henry Telende grew a pineapple for Sir Matthew Decker at his estate in west London. This one miraculous British-born fruit represented such an accomplishment that Decker had a painting of the pineapple commissioned in Telende’s honor.
Telende’s technique was shared in print in 1721, and, shortly thereafter, everyone who was anyone across the British Isles got busy building their very own “pinery.” The costs involved were astronomical: building a pineapple stove to heat a hothouse cost £80 (more than $6,000 USD today, or the cost of a new coach back then); obtaining pineapple crowns or slips from which to propagate the plant ran you around £30 (nearly $2,500 today); and then you had the cost of employing a gardener, paying people to plant, fill, and maintain the tanners bark in the beds, and hiring garden boys to sit at the stove twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, for the two years it took to bring the plants to fruit, to make sure that stove didn’t burst into flames and burn the entire operation down.
“It was really an extraordinarily high outlay just for a pineapple, but yet they thought it was worth it because such was the sense of status it demonstrated to those around them,” Beauman told Gastropod.
By the 1760s, every great country house in Britain was growing their own pineapples, as far north as Scotland. And as English gardens finally began yielding a handful of these exotic fruits, lords and ladies once again used up countless bottles of ink writing letters to each other about them. How were the pineapples doing? Had they fruited yet? If they had fruited, who were the nobles going to give them to? Would they take them to the country estate, or send them to London to their townhouse? “Honestly, it’s all they talk about for weeks and months at a time,” Beauman said.
The first English recipe for a pineapple tart appeared in The Country Housewife in 1732, but, for the most part, those who were able to grow or obtain a pineapple wouldn’t have dreamed of eating it. ”Why would you eat that? It would be a bit like eating your Gucci handbag. What a waste,” Beauman explained. Instead, nobles would show it off to their guests and visitors for weeks, until it filled their homes with the sickly smell of decomposing fruit. Pineapples were so sought-after that, apparently, if you didn’t have the money or status to grow your own, you could rent one to display at important dinners.
It wasn’t until the 1800s, with the help of steamships and refrigeration, that pineapples would become common enough for rich and poor alike to dream of actually consuming them. But it would take the invention of canning, the California Gold Rush, and the overthrow of Hawai’i’s last Queen for pineapple to become a tiki icon, controversial pizza topping, and companion to cottage cheese as we know it today. Check out the latest episode of Gastropod, “Who’s Eating Who: Pineapples and You,” for the full story—plus a surprise Kenny Rogers cameo!