Bananas tasted different fifty years ago. Don’t worry, that lost flavour has been archived in an Arctic doomsday vault…as well as your supermarket’s lolly aisle.
Archived objects have a certain look about them (often faded, yellowing and clearly out of their time). They have a smell about them (I could write an entire post about that ‘old book’ smell). Sometimes, they also have a particular taste.
The Svalbard Seed Bank stores around 940,000 seed varieties in its underground vaults, 1,300 kilometres from the Arctic Circle. It is a safety repository of the world’s rarest seeds. Among these is a duplicate of the Gros Michel banana seed. In banana mythology, this is supposedly the variety that artificial banana flavouring is based upon. Think of those milkshakes and lollies that somehow taste like banana without actually tasting anything like banana. It’s an urban myth but, in a round about way, I’ll show you why it is true.
The Gros Michel was far more pungent than today’s Cavendish variety. Bananas did taste different in your Nan’s day. Gros Michels were the most commonly cultivated type of banana throughout the 20th Century, but came close to extinction with the spread of a fungal infection, the Panama Disease. There is no evidence that developers of that pongy artificial banana taste aimed to match their chemicals with the Gros Michel. However, seeing as it was the most common variety at the time, it is likely that the Gros Michel flavour was what they had in mind. Taste tests with rare samples of the Gros Michel suggest that the real and the fake have a very similar twang.
A chemical called isoamyl acetate is responsible for that taste in banana flavouring. It’s a colourless liquid, also commonly used to mimic pear. While it occurs naturally in bananas, most flavourings use a synthetic version. It can also be found in a honey bee’s sting. Bananas themselves are part of the Musa genus and are thought to have originated in Southeast Asia. The collections at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens pleasingly describes their root system as “fleshy and adventitious” (they grow in whatever shape they can muster through the earth). The Kew Collection also holds pressed and dried pieces of banana that can be viewed by researchers upon appointment. Bananas are slightly more radioactive than other fruits and rot quickly, making them difficult to preserve in collections. This did not prevent archaeologist from unearthing a banana from a 15th Century English Tudor rubbish tip.
Each seed in the Svalbard collections is able to generate new crops for approximately two thousand years, but the limited gene pool (the bank can only store three of each seed) means they are susceptible to diseases. For this reason, seeds at Svalbard are used only as a last resort. Fifty thousand new samples were recently added to the seed bank. It is intended as a research resource for climate scientists as much as it is a ‘doomsday’ collection.
If you’re mad keen on bananas, the International Banana Museum has the most items devoted to a single fruit in the world (over 17,000) http://www.internationalbananaclub.com/the-international-banana-club-museum.html. You can become a life member with the privilege of adding L.B. (‘legal banana’) to your business card.
There are thousands of other seeds at Svalbard Global Seed Vault. If you’d like to know more about what’s on your doomsday menu, see what plants they’re preserving: https://www.croptrust.org/our-work/svalbard-global-seed-vault/
The Kew Collection mentioned above is also part of an international network of seed banks that preserve seeds, so if botany’s your thing: https://www.bgci.org/resources/seedbanks/