Père Labat’s Banana Pastilles

I was about to finally get down to post about the culinary event in Düsseldorf, but I got sidetracked by my current book project on buccaneer cuisine again and instead, I want to share this gem from Jean Baptiste Labat’s account of the French Caribbean. It is a fascinating example of what happens when refined seventeenth-century European tastes meet a Native American culinary tradition:

Seventeenth-century bananas, still life by Albert Eckhout courtesy of wikimedia commons

“I have said elsewhere that the Indians prepare a paste which they carry with them on their voyages and which supplies their food and drink. Those who wish to prepare this paste with more care first dry the plantains (bananes) in the oven or in the sun. Then they grate them, and next mix them with ground sugar, with a little bit of cinnamon powder, of cloves, and of ginger, a proper amount of flour and the white of an egg to bind all these things together mixed with a little bit of orange flower water. You make pastilles (tablettes) of this which you dry in the sun or in an oven, and they are very good and nourishing.”

This is from volume three of the Nouveau Voyage. The account the author refers to is in volume one, where he describes how the “Indians” (probably Kalinago) mash plantains and shape the paste into loaves which they dry in the sun. These are then used as travel supplies, either eaten directly or dissolved in water to make a thick beverage. Unfortunately, we receive no instruction on how to eat the refined version, but I suppose they could be chewed as they are or cooked into a porridge-like dish.

The general process at work here is unsurprising: A foreign food, and in this case more unusually also a process associated with it, is adapted to the taste of the European upper classes by adding high-status ingredients. Labat was a member of the metropolitan French upper class coversant with the new mode of eating that was emerging around this time, and he took a serious interest in food. His descriptions are generally trustworthy. I think this will be worth trying out.

Incidentally, though modern usage differs, when Labat writes of bananes, he means the cooking variety we call plantains. He makes this clear later in the text when he explains that what the French call bananes, the Spanish refer to as plantains. The fruit he calles figues d’Amerique are closest to what we know as banana today, though they were probably not very much like our modern, transport-optimised cultivar.

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