The pineapple puzzle


EVERY time I spend 90p or so on a fresh pineapple from Lidl, I ask myself: ‘How the hell do they do it for the price?’

On a trip to the Azores ten years ago, we visited a pineapple plantation and were shown how they are grown. The tops of mature fruits are sliced off about half an inch below the leaves. These are then rooted in beds under glass, where they take at least a year to reach full size. Growing from seed takes even longer.

The plants have to be watered, fed and kept pest-free before being harvested, packed and transported mainly abroad. All of this costs money, reflected in the hefty price of the products in the plantation shop, including juice, jam, pineapple pina colada and mojito, pineapple cake and, of course, the fruit itself.

And yet British supermarkets still manage to sell pineapples, presumably at a decent profit, for less than a quid. What’s going on here?

The Azores, an autonomous region of Portugal, is a volcanic archipelago in the North Atlantic 800 miles west of Lisbon and 1,600 miles south-west of the UK. Mount Pico, on the island of Pico, is the highest point in Portugal at 7,713ft. Apparently, if measured from top to base deep below the Atlantic surface, the islands are among the tallest mountains on Earth.

Warmed by the Gulf Stream, their climate is mild all year round but mainly wet and cloudy. Locals assured us that the weather is beautiful in July but it was September when we arrived at Ponta Delgada, on the largest island of São Miguel, and we spent a week seeing very little of the sun.

The holiday started badly. Our flight was delayed by five hours so instead of arriving around lunchtime, it was evening when we reached our hotel. Having dumped our cases we went out in search of food and especially drink, to find the dark streets deserted in the pouring rain. Despite it being Saturday night, few places were open and we ended up in some sort of burger joint on the seafront drinking wine of dubious quality. The seats were of red plastic – always an indicator in our experience of a place to avoid. Returning to the hotel for a nightcap, we questioned our sanity in visiting such a godforsaken hole.

After a decent night’s sleep and a healthy breakfast, however, we determined to make the best of a bad job and went out for a walk. The first surprise was the extraordinary pavements.

These are a prime example of the intricate and beautiful Calçada mosaics which are a feature of all Portuguese territories (the link is well worth looking at). Most have a grey background of limestone with black inserts of basalt. However the reverse tends to apply in the Azores, which mined its own basalt but had to import the limestone. Every street in Ponta Delgada has its own individual pattern. Mrs Ashworth took lots of pictures but now she can’t find them in the computer maze.

What struck us next was the huge number of banks, comprising, it seemed, every other building. This, we were told, is because the Azores is an offshore tax haven.

Whaling used to be one of the key industries, with lookout posts on the top of the cliffs where men with telescopes would scan the ocean for the faint mist of a whale’s breath. When one was spotted a rocket was shot into the sky, alerting the crew of the whale boat, who would paddle out to sea, harpoon the unfortunate creature and drag it home. Although this seems barbaric today, when I look at the size of the whale boats compared with the massive cetaceans that would be towed to shore, I have to admit a sneaking respect for the strength and courage of the crews risking and often losing their lives to feed their families. This documentary, not for the squeamish, is narrated by no less than Orson Welles and shows Azorean whalers in 1968, shortly before open-boat hunting was banned. These days, thankfully, the locals make their money not from slaughtering whales but from taking tourists out to watch them.

We invested in one such trip and were rewarded with the thrilling sight of some 40 or 50 dolphins cavorting in our speedboat’s wake for half an hour. The captain threw no food to them, they were just leaping about for the hell of it.

Another excursion was to a volcanic spa where plumes of sulphurous steam arose from the mud and there was a lake of bright orange whose waters were claimed to cure all ills. We resisted the offer to swim in it, mainly because we had no costumes with us and didn’t want to frighten the natives. There was one spot nearby where a bloke dug a hole and placed in it some raw meat wrapped in foil which he then covered in soil. A couple of hours later it came out cooked, although tasting no better than from a conventional oven. Worse, in fact.

One stormy day after lunch we took a walk along the coast and found a restaurant, Cais 20, where we asked to use the loo. The staff were disappointed when we said we’d already eaten and didn’t believe us when we said we’d be back the next day. They were ecstatic when we kept our promise and supplied multiple courses of local delicacies including a magnificent seafood platter at a cost of next to nothing. Incidentally, this place is open from noon right through to 5am, which I suspect means that the fishermen eat there.

By the end of our holiday we were converts to the Azores experience and vowed to return one day. In the meantime, I’d still like to know the truth about the price of pineapples.

Old jokes’ home

Two blokes working together, one announces that he is going to the corner shop. ‘In that case,’ says his mate, ‘can you get me 20 Benson and Hedges?’ ‘What if they don’t have them?’ ‘Get me something else.’ Chap comes back and presents him with a paper bag with something heavy in it. ‘What the hell is this?’ asks his pal. ‘It’s a pork pie. They didn’t have any Benson’s.’

A PS from PG

‘And she’s got brains enough for two, which is the exact quantity the girl who marries you will need.’

PG Wodehouse: The Adventures of Sally

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