For 100 years, the big banana growers have said it couldn't be done: bring a better-tasting, non-commodity version of the fruit to the American shopper. The reasons? Bananas have to be cheap; they need to be grown in massive quantities; they need to be shipped and processed in ways that require least-common-denominator techniques that lead to a product that's good - but nowhere near as tasty as some local varieties or even a standard fruit (the breed we eat is called a Cavendish) eaten locally.
I recently spoke to a fruit importer named Jose Ubilla who hopes to change that. His family runs a small Nicaraguan banana plantation, and began importing fruit under the Coquimba brand name in mid-June (the fruit is being marketed as "The Gourmet Banana.") Though the fruit is of the same Cavendish variety that you'll find in supermarkets everywhere, Ubilla says that the fruit he's selling are bigger, better tasting, and will arrive at markets in better condition that standard supermarket fruit than the Chiquita, Dole, and Bonita bananas you're used to seeing. The reason? Shorter shipping times and better handling: the fruit is babied on the tree, with each bunch picked at its individual point of readiness, and then shipped in carefully monitored containers: "You can't do it this way if you're handling large quantities of fruit," says Ubilla.
The fruit is currently being sold at a few farmers markets in Florida, so - being in Los Angeles - I haven't had a chance to sample it. But Ubilla is working with a California distributor, as well, and promises me a taste - so stay tuned; I'll be updating with an on-the-spot report.
Comment: there's no doubt that a fresh Cavendish is better tasting (and has a less mushy texture) than a less fresh one, and shipping in small quantities with more care makes all the difference. I can't tell you how many letters I get asking how it is possible that the bananas folks have eaten in Central America can be the same variety as the one they get in supermarkets here. If the Coquimba fruit performs as promised, it should be closer to that straight-from-the-plantation experience.
The challenge Coquimba faces is marketing. Consumers are used to treating bananas as a commodity. Are they going to be willing to pay more for a banana that might not look all that different than the ones they're used to? I love Ubilla's idea of selling at farmers markets - a place bananas have usually been absent from.
But here's what I'd really love to see: Coquimba to succeed so much that it goes one step beyond Cavendish - and gets into different banana varieties entirely. With hundreds of delicious non-Cavendish banana types out there, why not approach the fruit the way apple producers did a decade ago when they introduced today's plethora of varieties to a market that featured only the bland red delicious and granny smith? Check out these articles (here and here) on the bananas of India. If only we could get a few of those into our stores!
Would you be willing to pay a little more for a fresher-from-the-tree, better-tasting banana? Add your comment below.