Bananas are fragile fruits that require a lot of care and inspections from flowering to consumption. The journey and life of an elegant fruit.
Every day in Africa and Latin America, expert hands cultivate banana trees, which are transient but productive plants. Bananas, which are harvested all year round, are fast-growing (about 9 months) perennial fruits. Although there are now more than 1,000 varieties, Cavendish dessert bananas account for more than half of the world’s production. Soft, sweet, immaculate and pampered, a Cavendish can pass through the hands of more than fifty people before landing on our plates.
Cultivation and harvesting: precise actions
Five months after planting the cuttings or shoots, flowering starts on a trunk essentially composed of rolled leaves. Then comes the banana cluster comprising “hands”, the bunches, and “fingers” which are the fruits. Bananas are sensitive to cold, wind, temperature variations, mould, insects and shocks and require a lot of gentleness and care. Growers bustle about in plantations where the soil is regularly drained. They remove dead leaves, measure, fertilise, remove pistils and parasites, stake the trees, while checking for latex drips and tracking parasites or fungi. They also do not forget to remove the suckers that form at the foot of the parent plant threatening the survival of the banana tree. This is called suckering. Incidentally, at harvest time, only one successor sucker will be preserved. Around the sixth month, the clusters are protected with a sheath. This protective bag also creates a micro-climate conducive to fruit growth.
Once the bananas have reached the desired size and enter the sleeping phase naturally, the sheaths are removed and separators are placed between each hand. This period during which the fruits slow down their respiration and therefore their ripening, is often compared to a form of hibernation. This is the time when the harvest can begin. Cut manually with a sharp gesture, the clusters, which produce up to 250 bananas, are carried over the shoulder and gently placed in bins suspended from cables running through the plantation. Once at the packing station, they are then cut into bunches, soaked and rubbed in an aluminium sulphate bath to remove any latex residue or stubborn insect.
Prepared for the long journey
The aesthetic quality of the still-green bananas is inspected by graders before packaging. Those destined for the European market must meet strict standards in terms of size, morphology and colorimetry. Those that do not conform are immediately discarded. After having been sorted, weighed and labelled, the compliant bunches are then carefully placed in perforated and aerated boxes. Quality checkers then check the information displayed on the packages, such as category, final destination and traceability code. The packages are then placed on pallets which also have bar codes. Once they arrive at the port of departure, the pallets leave in closed and ventilated cold rooms, where the temperature ranges from 13° to 14°. They will travel under these conditions so that their sleep phase will be extended for the duration of the journey.
For example, bananas produced in Africa by the Société de Culture Bananière (SCB), one of Compagnie Fruitière’s subsidiaries, are first loaded onto ships in Douala, Cameroon, then in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Transport, which can last between 10 and 15 days, is just as important as the soil of the plantations and the sunshine or the humidity all year round. Thermometers and fans keep green bananas asleep in ship holds. A simple variation of a few tenths of a degree could trigger a too-rapid ripening, or conversely, cause curls due to the cold. Once landed in European ports, 3% of the packages (about 250 pallets) are examined in minute detail to check whether the size, curvature and even the white of the flesh conform to European standards and the indicated category. Checks are also made to ensure the fruit does not have damaged crowns or traces of latex.
Ripening and consumption
Before being delivered to traders, the fruit must still resume their ripening cycle, placed in a ripening room. In a few days, in an atmosphere controlled at about 17°, the starch is transformed into sugar, the skin turns yellow and the flesh softens. The bananas delivered to customers, which are delicious but still fragile, must be carefully extracted from their carton one bunch at a time. When stored outside a refrigerator, they can then retain their beautiful ochre colour and sweet taste for a week.