There are several thousand types of banana around the world, though we only tend to eat one. The Cavendish. First grown in the Chatsworth greenhouse of the William Cavendish, sixth Duke of Devonshire, and catapulted into the mass market during the 1940s, the Cavendish accounts for 99 per cent of international consumption.
Unfortunately, the Cavendish is in danger. Tropical Race 4, a fungus which has already destroyed acres of crops across Taiwan, Indonesia and Malaysia, is threatening the plantations of South and Central America. With the ability to linger in soil for decades, the prospect of a Race 4 outbreak in what is now the banana hub of the world could be catastrophic – both for plantation owners who depend on the fruit for their income and for consumers, who would see an entire foodstuff wiped out until further notice.
What a change that would be. In the UK, we munch more than five billion bananas per year. Since the mid-1980s, consumption has increased by more than 300 per cent, making us one of Europe's largest consumers of the fruit.
"In my family we go through two or three bunches a day," agrees Oliver Peyton, founder of restaurant group Peyton and Byrne. "And we use them all the time in our cafés and bakeries." Indeed, the banana – once an exoticism, a sliver of the Caribbean in a bowl of apples – is now the most consumed fruit in the UK.
So why the enthusiasm? In part it's the price: Bananas are cheaper than most other fruit. They're convenient: encased in their individual packaging, there's no need to wash before you eat. Simply peel and it's yours: as pristine as nature intended. They are, in many ways, the perfect snack. Cheap, fast, healthy (rich in vitamins B6 and C), the Cavendish offers high levels of potassium, magnesium and fibre. And delicious. Unless you're one of the small band of banana refuseniks (and they do exist) bananas can be enjoyed in all sorts of ways: au naturel, yes, but also baked, grilled, coated in syrups or mashed on toast. "They are more versatile even than apples," says Peyton. "One of our biggest-selling desserts is our banoffee pie. And my kids love banana sandwiches. It's a comfort food: a bit exotic but also available."
Our decade-long love-affair with American muffins and cupcakes has only upped bananas' appearance on the bakery blackboard. Banana choc-chip cookes, anyone? Banana split? Banana-nut muffin? And that's before you consider banana-based drinks. A quick call to London's trendy burger chain, The Diner, confirms the inevitable: banana milkshakes are by far the most popular option on the menu. According to Marks & Spencer, sales of banana milkshakes have increased by 61 per cent in the past year. Meanwhile smoothies – a drink largely unheard of just over a decade ago – have made the banana a blender staple. Without it, blended fruit is just juice. Add a banana, and you get the thick entity which has supplanted countless bowls of cereal at the breakfast table.
But there's more to the banana's rise. Beginning in the 1990s, suppliers began a notable push to raise their product's profile. "Sports stars like Linford Christie got involved," explains Alistair Smith of Banana Link, a not-for-profit foundation that campaigns for fair trade and sustainable practice in the industry. "The banana became something to have before a race or sports event. They became much more viable." When the Co-op started stocking fair trade bananas, the chance to buy ethically added to the fruit's appeal. Both Sainsbury's and Waitrose now stock 100 per cent fair trade and most others offer an option.
So what to do about Tropical Race 4? Ironically, the Cavendish only reached its ascendancy thanks to the impact of an earlier crop disease, Tropical Race 1, and its impact on a prior favourite, the Gros Michel– the first banana to be exported from Jamaica and taken to the US in the late 19th century. As production of that strain dwindled, suppliers slowly introduced the resistant Cavendishes. If growers could find a similarly resistant successor – with the durability and flavour of the Cavendish – a similar strategy could be employed. To this end, scientists are working to develop bananas genetically modified to resist the disease's clasp and, elsewhere, breeders are attempting to create new strains. If they're successful, we'll be unlikely to notice the change. If not, we might have to kiss the banana milkshakes goodbye.