Pineapples, still life and hot houses

Deer Park Country House’s pineapple house lies in the Italian kitchen garden (c) The Lemon Grove

Every since explorer Christopher Columbus landed at Caribbean island of Guadeloupe and saw his first pineapple, the fruit has held a spell over cooks, cheese and wine party hosts and the American canning industry. My interest in the knobbly fruit was piqued during a lecture at the Royal Academy art gallery in London, as part of a course I am currently following on food in art, ‘Plate to Palette’. The study of art in food is fascinating and as the RA literature says: “Perhaps the most well-known example of food being represented in art in the Western tradition is the opulent still life, and the associated genre paintings made popular in the 16th and 17th century. Such paintings became an opportunity for artists to showcase their skill and talent through the depiction of lifelike and intricate arrangements that captured texture and colours, and provided new perspectives on edible and perishable goods.

Deer Park Country Hotel’s pineapple house pre-restoration (c) The Lemon Grove

“For those who commissioned and collected them, such paintings served to distinguish the owner’s wealth, intellect and social status. The exotic and often luxurious, as well as common, foods on display made subtle references to decay, the temporary and transient nature of life’. It was in such pictures that the pineapple made its illustrious appearance during the RA lecture by Quentin Buvelot, senior curator at the Maritshaus gallery in The Hague, Netherlands.

A catchup with my fellow students after the lecture touched upon pineapples and the hothouses needed to grow them in Renaissance times across western Europe.

For centuries the fruit has been a longstanding symbol of hospitality and often found in still life Renaissance paintings. Images of pineapples are increasingly found on Colonial period bedposts, garden planters, wrought iron gates, vintage textiles and more recently, welcome mats to our homes.

Deer Park’s pineapple house is one of the few such left in the UK (c) The Lemon Grove

In art, the fruit was first seen in a painting dated c1675. The work shows a man thought to be royal gardener John Rose kneeling before his king, Charles II, and proffering what is thought to be the first pinepapple grown in the England. Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden ran at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace in 2014 and featured the painting and the show including a rather beautiful, undated early etching of a pineapple by Maria Sibylla Merian. Another brilliant show was curated by Buvelot. Held in 2017 it was titled ‘Slow Food: Still Lifes of the Golden Age” and as the catalogue said: “From 1600 onwards, richly set tables piled high with tempting morsels and precious objects became a popular artistic theme. The detailed depiction of food, fine silver and glassware laid out on the table was a subject favoured by various painters.”

Colder climes and hothouses

Pineapples have long held sway in popular imagination (c) The Lemon Grove

Pineapples are notoriously difficult to grow in colder climates such as northern Europe, so historically grand country houses of the UK often included a pineapple greenhouse or pinerie in the extensive gardens and greenhouses that fed family and staff. Originally these hothouses were packed with tonnes of horse manure, throwing out steaming heat through a networkd of pipe allowing a few prized pineapples to grow away from the warmth of the Caribbean and central America. (Food writer Kaori O’Connor has written a great little book entitled ‘Pineapple: A Global History” which is worth a read for the pineapple fan!)

Only a few pineapple hothouses remain working today, including 19th century pineapple pit at the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall and a pinery-vinery at Tatton Park, Cheshire that dates from the mid 18th century.

Restoration and hot air

Deer Park’s pineapple hothouse in the midst of its current rennovation (c) Deer Park

However, restoration of a Victorian era-pinery is taking place at the rather lovely Deer Park Country Hotel in east Devon. Over the past few years owner and businessman Nigel Wray has extensively renovated the hotel, and now attention is turning to the hothouse which lies in the fertile Italian kitchen garden. As a boy, Nigel and his family often stayed at the hotel and during a successful business career, he bought the hotel and set about restoring it (and filling it with a fraction of The Priory Collection, the country’s largest gathering of sporting memorabilia) under the management and keen eye of hotelier Mark Godfrey. Built in 1755 as a mansion for a Georgian squire, it is a hotel that takes its board and lodging seriously.

During restoration, spring bulbs and vegetables are planted in the pinery (c) Deer Park

Historically, to grow pineapples, gardeners need to recreated tropical conditions in small greenhouses using tonnes of horse manure, tanner’s bark and straw in stinking dung pits. The pineapple hothouse at Deer Park was fitted with a boiler and a network of pipes that circulated hot air into the hothouse and through the dung pile.

Some hothouses included dry stoves in which the source of heat was fermenting dung and tanner’s bark, wood or coal which was then pumped through a network of flues or chimney pipes to create hot air which circulated in pipes buried in the dung pile. Pictured are some images of the Deer Park hothouse before (Spring 2016) and more recently part way through restoration. The boiler room has been fixed up and lots of repointing done. We’re looking forward to seeing how it’s looks on completion and for the first pineapple crop!

Expensive to grow, it’s easy to image how they charmed artists and added exotica to the dining tables of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As for the American canning industry – well throughout the early twentieth century they bred pineapples shaped for the tin, squarer and taller than the native varieties, most of which are sadly no longer available in wild or cultivated states.

Fancy making some PINEAPPLE AND CITRUS FRUIT MARMALADE? Well, here’s a recipe adapted from Australian Women’s Weekly …

INGREDIENTS

2 grapefruit (850g)
2 limes (160g)
2 oranges (480g)
1 ltr water
1 pineapple (800g), peeled, chopped finely
1.3 kg sugar, approx
2 tbsp fresh lime juice

METHOD

 

  • Strip and cut rind from grapefruit, limes and oranges, thinly, avoiding white pith. Chop citrus flesh finely.
  • Remove and discard pith reserve seeds and tie into a muslin bag.
  • Combine rind, muslin bag, citrus flesh and the water in large bowl; cover, stand overnight, giving the flesh a chance to breakdown and boost flavours.
  • Place fruit fusion in a large saucepan before stirring in the pineapple; bring to a boil.
  • Reduce heat; simmer, covered, about 45 minutes or until rind is very tender. Discard muslin bag.
  • Measure fruit mixture, allow 220g sugar to each cup of fruit mixture.
  • Return fruit mixture with sugar to pan; stir over heat, without boiling, until sugar dissolves.
  • Add juice; boil, uncovered, stirring occasionally, about 35 minutes or until marmalade jells when tested.
  • Let cool for 5 minutes.
  • Pour hot marmalade into hot sterilised jars, seal while hot.

 

Bruce

I am freelance journalist and published author focusing on food and drink; business startups and enterprise; culture and travel. I have also written about the global upstream oil and gas industry, shipping and current affairs. Based in London, I travel widely, particularly across western Europe. I have chaired many conferences and meetings, spoken at conferences and events and often appear on radio and TV talking most about food, the business of food and being an entrepreneur.

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