For Rent, One Pineapple
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Christopher Columbus encountered the pineapple in 1493 on the island of Guadeloupe.
He called it piña de Indes, ‘pine of the Indians’ and brought it back with him to Europe.
No-one knows when the first pineapple first appeared in England but Elizabethan adventurers encountered it and some were probably brought back by them.
Around 1675 Charles II was painted receiving a pineapple from his gardener John Rose , supposedly the first such fruit cultivated on English soil.
The pineapple became a potent status symbol in Georgian England. It could only be cultivated at great cost in a special greenhouse called a pinery, which required a huge amount of fresh horse manure to maintain the temperature required to grow the sought-after item. With the capital outlay for the hothouse and at least three years of constant labour to get the plant to fruit, the tab for producing a single pineapple put the fruit way out of reach to all but the very wealthiest.
One writer describes the scene at a dinner in the eighteenth century hosted by Lord Petre at his Essex estate. After a sumptuous banquet the door of the dining room was majestically flung open and guests were treated to an astonishing sight: a liveried footman carrying a huge pile of pineapples direct from the estate’s hothouses atop an ornate silver tray.
Home-grown pineapples began to appear at all the best society dinners. Because of their great cost they were often not actually eaten, but used as ornamentation at the centrepiece of the table, and were passed on from party to party until the fruit began to rot. If you were not able to grow your own, you could rent a pineapple. The same pineapple would turn up in several houses until it was no longer fit to present.
As the century progressed it became more affordable to actually eat the fruit and while still very much luxury items, if you could not grow your own they became available to buy in exclusive fruit shops.
The pineapple entered the broader Georgian culture in a number of ways. The phrase ‘a pineapple of the finest flavour’ was a metaphor for the most splendid of things. In Sheridan’s popular play The Rivals, Mrs Malaprop exclaims: ‘He is the very pineapple of politeness.’
Pineapple motifs appeared on Georgian furniture and on Chinaware designs. A very striking form of representation of wealth and hospitality was a stone pineapple atop a gatepost, which is occasionally still to be seen.
And of course the Georgian satirists didn’t miss an opportunity. ‘The Cabinet Dinner or a Political Meeting’ by C. Williams depicts eight cabinet ministers asleep around the dinner table, surrounded by remnants of a lavish meal. Strewn about the room are two pineapples, one only half eaten – a telling symbol of the decadence of the ruling classes…
An original eighteenth-century pineapple pit was discovered at the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall. In 1997, after much historical research and horticultural effort, the pinery saw its first twentieth century fruit – grown just as it would have been done in the past. In a nod to Charles II, the second pineapple produced there (the first was sampled by the staff …) was delivered to Queen Elizabeth on her 50th wedding anniversary.
Queen Elizabeth: By NASA/Bill Ingalls [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Presentation of pineapple: Hendrick Danckerts (fl. 1645–1679) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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