In 1947, the Queensland government sent the future Queen Elizabeth a luxurious wedding present: 500 tins of pineapple. Rings or chunks? I don’t know. Stop tittering.
The pineapple was once held in the highest esteem. In the late 18th century, a glass pinery became an essential addition to the country house of every ambitious châtelaine, and the sweet-tasting, regal-looking fruit was prized all the more because, as Fran Beauman writes in her book The Pineapple, the cost of raising one involved three years’ hard labour and matched “that of a new coach”.
Even so, Alexandre Gabriel hesitated when a historian friend, David Wondrich, challenged him to recreate one of the delicacies of Georgian Britain – pineapple rum.
“I’m a cognac distiller, it was like saying, ‘We’re going to make, I don’t know, strawberry…” he hesitates, unable to find a drink that sufficiently expresses his disdain.
“Then it started to germinate in my mind. I went to a specialist fruit market in Paris and began to see the potential. The way that we distil in the little pot stills here in Cognac is magical, we can extract flavour so precisely and I thought after all it could be worth breathing life back into this drink, which probably came from Barbados, where the pineapple was a symbol of welcome.”
Pineapple rum (with hot water) was also thirstily drunk by Rev Mr Stiggins in The Pickwick Papers until he began to display “indubitable symptoms of having quite as much… as he could comfortably accommodate.”
Gabriel and Wondrich began to examine archive recipes, unaware that even as they pored over the pages of the 1824 English Journal of Patents and Inventions, the pineapple was experiencing a renaissance as an inspiration for designers.
The architectural form of the narrow, spiky leaves at its crown and its lustrous scales (arranged in a Fibonacci sequence) are all over style magazines this summer – as wallpaper prints, lamps and table bases.
“Others have pointed this out to us too but I promise you, we have no idea about trends,” says Gabriel tartly.
Gabriel is an obsessive by nature and, having previously made a curaçao he knew that the true starting point must be the fruit. For three months, he examined different pineapples – from Peru, Jamaica, the Azores, anywhere in the world where pineapples are grown.
“We held tastings every morning, a new variety against our favourite variety. My team made a movie of me to make fun of me but we needed to find the right pineapple. I wanted one that had a very aromatic skin as well as a flavourful flesh.”
The one he settled on was the Queen Victoria, a small, sweet fruit grown on Réunion in the Indian Ocean, about 120 miles south-west of Mauritius. Gabriel macerated the aromatic, essential-oil-filled rind in rum, which was then distilled. The juicy fruit was marinated in Plantation Original Dark Rum, and the two liquids combined before being rested in oak casks for three months.
The result is excellent: you can smell the sweet pineapple through the dark spice and molasses of the rum. I particularly like the fact that the fruit doesn’t overwhelm the taste – it flickers through it.
I’m not the only one to be impressed. Gabriel and Wondrich never intended this as a commercial enterprise. But they took a barrel to the annual Tales of the Cocktail event in the United States, where Gabriel runs seminars, and which is attended by bartenders from all over the world. After tasting it, the bartenders clamoured for it.
“Bottles of that first batch are selling for €600-€700 [£461-£537] on the internet,” says Gabriel. Obviously, he made more. Even so, Stiggins’ Fancy, as it has been christened after that greedy Dickens character, is still in extremely limited supply, as it can be made only twice a year when the pineapples are in season.
It is a labour-intensive business: pineapples are delicate and taste best when they have been allowed to ripen on the tree. This means they must be flown in; there is then a three-day window in which to prepare them for the rum. Gabriel solves the labour problem by hiring all the retired people in the village to spend three days preparing them.
I have a bottle myself and intend not to let it out of my sight: this is going to be a pineapple summer. If you would like to try it, then hurry. The smart buyers at Marks & Spencer have secured an allocation that is for sale in selected stores at £34 a bottle. Try not to get carried away with Black Lace lyrics as you drink it.
Three ways to drink pineapple:
Fresh pineapple juice and lime
Neat fruit juice is always too rich and too sweet for me, so I dilute it 50-50 with water (sometimes sparkling water) and drink it over ice. Pineapple and lime have a great affinity, so squeeze some fresh lime juice in there too, and add a bendy straw.
Stiggins’ Fancy Plantation Pineapple Rum (40%, M&S, £34 for 70cl)
It’s good drunk neat, but you’ll find the ripe pineapple fragrance is better appreciated from a wine glass than a tumbler. Otherwise, make a cocktail by mixing two parts of Stiggins’ Fancy with one part of freshly squeezed lime juice and one part of homemade sugar syrup and serving over lots and lots of ice (crushed if you can be bothered) in a tumbler. To make sugar syrup, shake equal volumes of sugar and water in a jam jar until the sugar is dissolved.
Pineapple iced tea
This sounds so disgusting, I know – I remember thinking that even as a child when I first made a version of this from Marguerite Patten’s Everyday Cook Book. To everyone’s surprise, it was delicious. Mix 1 litre of cold, weak black tea with 2 litres of carton pineapple juice and the freshly squeezed juice of four oranges, two lemons and two limes. Serve over ice with a mint and cucumber garnish.