FOOD & DRINK / When ripeness is all

The trouble with a pineapple is that once picked it can grow no sweeter . But, says Michael Bateman, buyers are finding new ways to bring us perfect fr uit

EVERYONE thinks they can tell when a pineapple is ripe. But everyone is quite wrong, say the experts who select fruit for supermarkets.

This is the routine, isn't it? Check the colour, rejecting those that are green. Search for one which is golden yellow. Sniff it thoughtfully, assessing the ripening perfume. Press the flesh firmly to estimate its degree of softness. Then, making sure the green-grocer is otherwise occupied, tug the plume of leaves on top, the crown. If you can pull out one of the leaves, so the saying goes, it is ripe to eat.

Not so, says Marks &Spencer's buyer, David Gregory. Colour is not an indicator of ripeness. Not so, says Sainsbury's Kevin Court, odour and softness don't mean ripeness so much as decay. Not so, says Tesco's Darren Blackhurst; when you can tug the leavesout a pineapple it is on the way to going rotten.

The only indicator of ripeness, says Mark Johnson of the fruit im-porters, Geest, is the level of sweetness. Contrary to popular belief, the pineapple doesn't get sweeter after picking. It doesn't ripen off the tree, being a climacteric fruit. Only non-climacteric fruits - banana, avocado and pear - can ripen off the tree.

This ticklish issue of ripeness in pineapples and other imported fruit is one that has been engaging the supermarkets this year. They realise that much of the fruit they select doesn't deliver a pleasing level of ripeness, sweetness and flavour. They know that much of it is picked before it is mature in order to withstand the rigours of handling on long journeys. (How often have we bought peaches or nectarines with a colourful blush that we take for ripeness, only to discover they have hard raw flesh on ce we bite in to them?)

Until fairly recently, supermarket fruit buyers all bought from wholesale importers. Now they are taking things into their own hands. Tesco, market leader in exotic fruit, deals direct with individual growers - even in Columbia (what drug barons?). It has developed an African connection on the Ivory Coast to bring in a highly acceptable pineapple with a minimum sweetness of 12 degrees sugar. Until now the average level of sweetness has been a tart 10 degrees.

One way in which M&S tackles the problem of getting riper fruit to its stores is to pick it straight into display boxes on site to eliminate bruising in transit. Some fruit, like Israeli mangoes in season, are actually air-freighted straight from the orchards.

Sainsbury's Kelvin Court defines the problem: "The fact is all fruit is dying from the moment it is harves-ted. Our function is to avoid an unacceptable rate of decay. Usually this means trying to hold it in suspended animation as long as possible, chilling it right down after harvesting."

There's another way of importing field-fresh fruit, and this is what the Geest people have been up to. They have created an entirely new product, processed fresh pineapple, cut at the moment of perfect ripeness (with between 12 and 16 degrees of sugar). It is then peeled and packed in transparent PVC boxes and delivered in chilled containers to stores in the condition in which it was picked. When Geest's marketing manager, Mark Johnson, launched the prepared pineapple, Necta, at Le Gav-roche in August this year he asked 20 or more leading food editors and writers how they would gauge the ripeness of a pineapple? Their answers were exactly as described above. If they didn't know, who did?

It had dawned on Geest that there was a gap in the market. Johnson, who's 33 and a former county rugby player, decided they should go for it. "It became clear that people in the UK had not experienced a perfectly ripe pineapple. They buy them, but they can't see inside. They only find out the fruit's not ripe when they cut it open. Then it's too late."

There were levels of resistance to be overcome - how can a prepared food be better than something that's whole? "We know we're never going to replicate the beauty and exoticism of the natural product, but we have something else - a guarantee of perfect ripeness every time."

In April 1992 he set up a pilot plant in Venecia in Costa Rica, a country Geest knows well, having been importing bananas from there since the 1930s. Pineapples, grown to a hefty 2 1/2kg, were picked at maximum maturity, whizzed to the factory and chilled. The central cylinder of flesh is removed (two-thirds of the fruit being discarded); it is then machine-packed, chilled and sent to Britain in refrigerated banana boats. It spends a maximium of one week in the factory; 12 days on the boat; and then it's given a 10-day life in the stores.

British supermarket buyers gave it the thumbs up; test marketing in Scotland established a good success rate with a high number of repeat buys. In July last year Geest put down pounds 1.7m to build a fruit processing factory, the largest of its kind in Costa Rica, completing it in July this year.

And so it was that a few weeks ago I found myself standing in the middle of a Canadian pineapple grower's 200-acre farm on the northern plain of Costa Rica, alternately boiling in an inferno of 90 degrees of sun or drowning in repeated deluges of rain, which is what passes for weather here.

It seemed insane to have made a 15-hour journey to this hot and humid country, which has almost the most spectacular flora in the world, to study of a processing plant that conducts its business in varying degrees of cold down to minus three (and minus 17 in the blast-chill stores).

The factory is designed to meet the requirements of the British Food Safety Act. If there is hell on earth (or a hell in the paradise of Costa Rica) it must be in the ice-cold depths of the Frutera San Carlos. Amplified music reverberates in discord withgenerators which thunder to bring down the temperature. Mysterious females in coloured rubberware and sanitised plastic aprons, masked like veiled Arabs, flourish 14-inch steel blades, slashing at pineapples to trim them. In blast-chill stor erooms, mendressed for an Arctic winter, muffled in anoraks, fill a 3-ton container with trays of 250g boxes packed with trimmed pineapple. To Mark John-son and the general manager, Raul Eduardo Oquendo, however, the factory is a palace of great beauty, for they have seen the future of tropical fruit. (Other processed fruit will follow, such as mangoes from Brazil.)

The pineapple is the most beautiful and exotic of all fruit. In the 18th century, when it was first introduced to Britain, it was adopted as a motif in architectural designs, standing on gates and railings, pillars and pede-stals. Aristocratic houses hired gardeners to grown pineapples, too. They vied with each other to produce bigger and better examples, forced in hothouses and conservatories, buried in warm horse manure and bathed in piped steam heat.

Even so, in a British climate, hothouse and all, the fruit would take some two or three years to mature. Costa Rica, on the other hand, has the perfect growing conditions (un-remitting heat, watered continously by the rains for 10 months out of every 12). In fact, the whole country is a tropical farm for coffee beans, bananas, sugar cane, citrus, every fruit you can imagine. God put Eden down here (orchids, flame trees, bougainvillea, howler monkeys, black eagles, alligators) and then added the heat, rain, earthquakes and volcanoes. Man provided the roads, potholed and cratered (the rains destroy them as soon as they are mended).

Costa Rican pineapples ripen in a year, the fastest-growing in the world, and require no art or skill, says grower Peter Shibley. The red earth where he was standing was rainforest 20 years ago. Now it is the richest soil in the world, he says. It is further enriched with trace minerals which the country's many volcanoes hurl into the skies at rather too frequent intervals.

Surrounded by miles of this cactus-like plant (the pineapple fruit is pushed up on a central stem), Peter Shibley illustrates how easy it is to grow. He rips off the crown of leaves on a mature fruit, scoops a hole in the soil with his fingers, and plunges it into the soil. "That's how you grow them. It will root in seven days. In a year's time that will produce another pineapple. There's nothing to it."

For ease of harvesting, the fruit is ripened to order; he uses an ethylene spray to induce flowering (fluoration) at six weeks. When the plant reaches a certain height (after 170 to 200 days) he sprays with etherol to force ripening; it matures 155 days later, give or take a day or two. That's all.

By January he will be on stream to produce 21 million kilos a year. Yet he started only six years ago from scratch. Mr Shibley is 47, a former engineer who had sold his construction company but, bored by retirement in Victoria, Canada, he joined a partner to grow fruit in Costa Rica.

When another company illegally planted pineapples on his land, he claimed a share, but rather than come to an agreement they ploughed up all 2m plants. He rushed in and salvaged 20,000 roots, splitting them up into four to propagate them, the parents of his present stock.

The rest he makes sound easy; dredging the river Toro for boulders to build his roads, tearing up scrub, seeing off 100 deadly snakes a week. Rather than import a pounds 150,000 cutting machine, he designed his own and had it built for pounds 16,000. He took us into his handsome wooden house, which he had built with own hands.

We could try two pineapples. One contained 14 degrees, within the Geest specification for sugar content. The other was a "natural", a fruit that had shot up ahead of the main crop and contained a syrupy 20 degrees of sugar. "We think you need enough acidto balance the sweetness," says Mark Johnson. "But local people prefer the sweetness of the natural. What do you think?"

"You are absolutely right, Mark," I reply diplomatically. "Er, could I try just another piece of that natural?"

COOKING WITH PINEAPPLE There's nothing quite like chunks of fresh pineapple in fruit salad to provide a zippy, keen freshness, especially with a shot of gin, vodka, white rum or kirsch. But its place in cooking has been slipping. What could be more naff than a gammon steak Hawaii with a round of tinned pine-apple on top?

In fact, cooked fresh pineapple is luscious and rich and sweet and sour in all its forms. Slices of pineapple gently fried in butter, perhaps with a little sugar and wine, make a lovely accompaniment to all pork or warm ham dishes. Or, fried in butter, it can be pureed and blended with the pan juices from roast duck or chicken to make a delicious sauce. With today's deliciously sweet fruit, however, its natural home is as dessert.

PROFESSOR BRADLEY'S PINEAPPLE TART The first pineapple recipe in England was published in 1732 by the Cambridge Professor of Botany, Richard Bradley, who got it from a friend in Barbados. (It is quoted in Jane Grigson's Fruit Book). The sweet paste referred to is a sweet, pre-cooked pastr y case. Allow about 6 tablespoons of Madeira and sugar to your taste.

Take a pineapple and twist off its crown; then pare it free from the knots and cut it into slices about half an inch thick; then stew it with a little Canary wine or Madeira wine and some sugar till it is thoroughly hot, and it will distribute the flavour of the wine much better than anything we can add to it. When it is as one would have it, take it from the fire; and when it is cool put it into a sweet paste, with its liquor, and bake it gently, a little while, and when it comes from the oven, pour cream over it, and serve it either hot or cold.

CLASSY UPSIDE-DOWN PINEAPPLE CAKE This recipe is from the late Jeremy Round, formerly the Independent's cook. The roasted hazelnuts, brandy, fresh fruit, and absence of glace cherries take that old dinner-party favourite, pineapple upside-down cake, up anotch or two.Very easy to make.

Serves 6

For the topping: 1/2 large ripe pineapple 3oz/90g slightly salted butter 3oz/90g caster sugar 1 tablespoon brandy 1/2 tablespoon lemon juice For the cake: 4oz/120g butter 4oz/120g caster sugar 3 1/2oz/100g self-raising flour 1 level teaspoon baking powder 1oz/30g hazelnuts, roasted, papery skins rubbed off, then ground in a liquidiser or food processor 2 eggs, size 3

1 tablespoon brandy

With a large, sharp stainless steel knife, cut the top, the stem, the skin, the core and the eyes from the pineapple. Slice the fruit crossways to make thin half-rings.

For the topping, melt the butter in a one-piece, straight-sided cake tin, 9in/23cm in diameter and 13/4in/4.5cm deep - preferably a non-stick one - over a low flame. Swish the butter around to coat the sides if the tin is not non-stick. Add the sugar, brandy and the lemon juice. Stir gently as the mixture boils and foams. After a few minutes it will start to colour. Continue stirring until it is a pale, even toffee-brown.

Take the tin off the heat. Arrange the pineapple slices in the sauce, overlapping, to cover the whole bottom of the tin.

Whizz all the cake ingredients in the food processor until smooth and creamy, or beat them energetically by hand. Pour the mixture over the pineapple and smooth over the surface with a spatula. Bake at 375F/ 190C/Gas 5 for 45 minutes, lowering the heat to 350F/180C/Gas 4 after half an hour if the mixture is already well risen and deep brown. When it is cooked, the cake will have contracted slightly from the sides of the tin, and a skewer pushed in at an angle across the cake will come out clean.

Take out of the oven and let it sit for a few minutes. Pass a knife round the sides to make sure nothing has stuck. Place an inverted serving plate over the tin then turn the whole thing upside down in one swift movement.

Serve hot, warm or cold with whipped double cream, strained thick yoghurt or creme fraiche .

PINEAPPLE AND RUM PICKLE White rum is delicious with pineapple. This pickle is from Australia from the doyenne of their cooks, Stephanie Alexander.

4oz/120g brown sugar 6 tablespoons white wine vinegar 6 tablespoons dark rum 2 yellow mustard seeds 6 cloves 1lb/500g ripe pineapple, chopped into chunks

In a heavy pan combine the sugar, vinegar, four tablesppons of the rum, the mustard seed and the cloves. Bring slowly to thhe boil, stirring to ensure that all the sugar is dissolved. Simmer for 5 minutes. Add the pineapple and cook, stirring occasionally (until the syrup is slightly reduced) for 10-15 minutes.

Remove from the hear abd stir in the rest of the rum. Transfer to a preserving jar and allow to cool before sealing. Store in the refrigerator at least overnight and use the pickle within a month.

GRATIN DE CRABE JACQUELINE This crab dish with pineapple is classic French, and appears on Michel Roux's menu at Le Gavroche, where he has taken over from his famous father, Albert, who created it.

Serves 6

1 or 2 crabs, total weight about 3lb/1.75kg 2oz/60g shallots 1 carrot 1 orange 1 grapefruit 1 1/2oz/50g butter 8oz/250g pineapple 1 medium bouquet garni 1/8 teaspoon harissa, or chilli sauce, or cayenne pepper 1pint/500ml sweet white wine 10fl oz/250ml double cream 2 tablespoons hollandaise sauce (see below)

salt freshly ground black pepper

If necessary, scrub the crabs under cold water to remove any silt stuck to the shell. Cook the crabs for 20 minutes, in boiling sea water if possible, otherwise in boiling salted water. Life them out of the water and keep in a cool place for at least 2 hours.

When they are cold, crack the legs and claws with lobster crackers or a mallet, then remove the body shell. Pick out all the white meat, discarding any cartilage and bits of shell. You should have about 1lb 4oz?550g white meat. Set aside. Using a spoon, scrape out the brown meat to use in the sauce.

To make the sauce, peel the shallots, carrots, orange and grapefruit and cut into small dice. Sweat them with the butter in a shallow pan until soft. Add the pineapple skin and the chopped centre core.

Add the bouquet garni, the brown crabmeat and the harissa. Continue to cook for 3 to 4 minutes, then pour in the white wine. Simmer for a further 20 minutes, then rub the sauce through a fine conical sieve. Return the strained sauce to the cleaned pan and reduce by half. Cut the pineapple flesh into julienne and keep in a cool place.

Preheat the grill to high. Stir the cream and the white crabmeat into the sauce and bring to the boil. Add the julienne of pineapple and simmer very gently for 2 or 3 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then stir in the hollandaise sauce. Do not allow the mixture to boil.

Lightly butter a flameproof gratin dish. Tip the crab mixture into the dish and place it under the hot grill until it turns a pale golden colour. Serve immediately.

For the hollandaise: To make this buttery lemon sauce, whisk an egg yolk in a double boiler with a little splash of reduced vinegar and lemon juice, gradually adding 20z/60g of cubed butter and cooking till it thickens. Thin with warm water if too thick.

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