Who would have thought that a few centuries ago, an everyday fruit like the pineapple, would be a symbol of wealth, status and good breeding? Worth thousands to buy, the precious pineapple was far too important to eat; so, the elite of society would pay a hefty sum to rent a pineapple by the hour, parading it at events, displaying it as a dinnertime ornament, or simply tucking it under their arm while out on a very public stroll, with a security guard trailing behind of course!
The 16th and 17th centuries saw a number of exotic foods and products brought back to Europe from the New World , and the pineapple was not only delicious, but its exotic appearance with its impressive ‘crown’ on top gave it a regal quality. King Charles II was so captivated by the pineapple that he commissioned a portrait of himself being presented with one.
King Charles II presented with a pineapple. British School, c1675-80. Royal Collection, London. Credit: Royal Collection Trust / Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
For the British, getting one’s hands on a pineapple was fraught with difficulty. Most transport ships at the time were too slow and conditions too unsuitable to allow pineapples to last the journey and, for at least two centuries, attempts to grow them on home soil proved impossible. Pineapples quickly became a symbol of wealth and status. They were carved into furniture, made into ornaments, painted onto carriages, and sculpted onto buildings, plinths and garden temples.
To be handed an actual pineapple in this era, was worth no less than being handed a bag of gold. In fact, a single pineapple would set its buyer back by the equivalent of £5000 – £10,000!
For those who were not affluent enough to pay the price of a pineapple, there was still hope. A pineapple could be rented by the hour and would be hired many times over the course of a week before it was finally sold to the lucky person who actually got to eat it.
Over time, as transport improved and pineapples were brought more regularly into Britain, and once methods were employed to grow pineapples in greenhouses across Europe, the prices began to drop and pineapples were no longer associated with status.
But the next time you complain about pineapple on your pizza, spare a thought for those poor souls who paid handsomely for the privilege of merely holding a pineapple.
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