“I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts
There they are a'standing in a row
Big ones, small ones, some as big as your head
"Give 'em a twist, a flick o' the wrist,”
That's what the showman said!
“I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts
Every ball you throw will make me rich
There stands me wife
The idol of me life
Singing, "Roll up, bowl a ball, a penny a pitch!"
The song celebrates the coconut shy, a traditional game at funfairs and fêtes. The mark – that is to say, the customer – throws a wooden ball at a row of coconuts balanced on posts. Typically a player buys three balls and wins each coconut he dislodges.
My knowledge of this game is based on the cynical warning from Midsomer Murder’s Chief Inspector Barnaby that the shy’s coconuts will be far too old to eat.
While we thus know coconuts were common in the UK in 1944 – edible or not – we may be unsure as to exactly when they did show up.
Are they a Regency treat?
Can our Regency ingenue be delighted by her first taste of crisp, sweet coconut flesh?
I will remove all suspense by saying, “Well. Maybe. Probably.”
And admit I don’t quite know.
But I’m going to talk about coconuts anyways because they’re kinda interesting.
The coconut is a drupe, a category of fruit that includes dates, olives, black pepper, various nuts, and “stone fruits” like peaches, plums and mangoes. It is not a tremendously useful word except that you can now use it in sentences like, “You, sir, despite your high office, are nothing but a pissant, pusillanimous drupe.”
Looked at as a drupe, the outer husk of the coconut is equivalent to the sweet juicy flesh of the apricot. The coconut we see in the supermarket is like the pit of the apricot, except the coconut has delicious coconut goodness inside instead of cyanide.
There are two sorts of coconut.
Not so much different anatomically,
as we got two populations that have such different DNA it looks like there were two separate cultivation events:
One in Southeast Asia.
One in the southern periphery of India.
Coconuts are all over the tropics of the world.
How'd they do that?
Well, they went with seafaring Arab traders from India to East Africa 2000 years BP. (BP = Before Present.) Even the name, zhawzhat al-hind, “walnut of India”, survives in Arabic today.
They travelled the Silk Road to East and West.
They hitched a ride with Polynesians settlers across the Pacific.
Portuguese traders carried them to the EAST coast of South America.
But there's a mystery.
Ships plying their trade and folk migrations packing along their favorite snack foods. That makes sense.
But South Asian coconuts have been found on the WEST coast of Panama in PreColumbian America.
How'd they get there?
Did they drift
or were they carried?
There are two vociferous views on this.
I love vociferous scholarly debates.
First off, could they have floated in from some Pacific atoll?
Here’s Thor Heyerdahl, writing of his first-hand experience crossing the Pacific Ocean from Peru to Polynesia on the raft Kon-Tiki:
"The (coco) nuts we had in baskets on deck remained edible and capable of germinating the whole way to Polynesia. But we had laid about half among the special provisions below deck, with the waves washing around them. Every single one of these was ruined by the sea water. And no coconut can float over the sea faster than a balsa raft moves with the wind behind it.”
If Heyerdahl is correct, even the most adventurous coconuts couldn't have drifed to the Americas from Polynesia.
Austronesians, those skilled and resolute travellers, brought Pacific coconuts all the way from Southeast Asia to Madagascar between 2000 and 1500 BP (I knew that abbreviation would come in handy.) The descendants of those voyagers still live in the high mountains there.
It’s not impossible those same people headed east and carried coconuts to the Americas before 2250 BP.
There is corroborating evidence from sweet potatoes that evolved in South America and yet are found all over Southeast Asia.
I trust sweet potatoes.
You may say, “But I LIKE the idea of coconuts bravely island-hopping across the South Pacific.”
I do too. It seems emotionally correct.
The brave little coconut.
I comfort myself with the studies of independent coconut establishment over shorter distances, reliable first-person accounts of coconuts living wild on remote islands, and the likelihood that coconuts got along just fine before people arrived to taxi them back and forth in dugout canoes.
“I have photographed coconut palms sprouting on Tetiaroa Atoll in French Polynesia. Whether these would survive the ravaging effects of land crabs and intense sunlight and grow into mature palms is hard to say, but there appeared to be palms of different ages along the beaches. I have also observed self-seeded coconut palms growing among mangrove thickets on cays off the coast of Belize.”
I will leave this controversy and return to England because this is more a Historical Romance book blog than a botanical one.
With coconut palms anciently in common use throughout the Mideast as food stuff, timber for ship building, and fiber for cord, European travellers and Crusaders would have seen coconut palms everywhere. They would have known them by repute long before they encountered them as edible drupes at home. (See how that word drupe grows on you?)
In the 13th century Marco Polo brought back descriptions of coconuts growing in Egypt where they were called “the Pharaoh’s nut.” He described twine made from coconut husks used in ship building in Iran.
Antonio Pigafetta, one of 18 men who returned to Spain in 1522, out of 240 who set out three years earlier with Vasco da Gama, wrote these words in his journal:
That palm bears a fruit, namely, the cocoanut, which is as large as the head or thereabouts. Its outside husk is green and thicker than two fingers. Certain filaments are found in that husk, whence is made cord for binding together their boats. Under that husk there is a hard shell, much thicker than the shell of the walnut, which they burn and make therefrom a powder that is useful to them. Under that shell there is a white marrowy substance one finger in thickness, which they eat fresh with meat and fish as we do bread; and it has a taste resembling the almond. It could be dried and made into bread. There is a clear, sweet water in the middle of that marrowy substance which is very refreshing.
An English botanist would have been familiar with these accounts, and they would have seen examples of the only physical coconut product that made it to Britain . . .
The coconut shell.
Because that shell was a rarity, Sixteenth-century Europeans believed that coconut shells had magical healing powers. We see them shaped into art objects, especially into elaborate goblets inlaid with precious metals and gemstones.
And there was jewelry
. . . dined with Mr. Moore and the people below, who after dinner fell to talk of Portugall rings, and Captain Ferrers offered five or six to sell, and I seeming to like a ring made of a cioco-nutt with a stone done in it, he did offer and would give it me. By and by we went to Mr. Creed’s lodging, and there got a dish or two of sweetmeats and I seeing a very neat leaden standish to carry papers, pen, and ink in when one travels I also got that of him, and that done I went home by water and to finish some of my Lord’s business, and so early to bed.
Samuel Pepys, Diary, June 16, 1662
I do not know what to make of this buying and selling of personal possessions between dinner companions.
“Let’s stick with the program,” you demand. ”When did ordinary British folks start buying and eating fresh coconuts? Was it in the Regency?”
I did set out to discover this. I was not successful.
Can I just say fresh coconuts rolled into Britain in a big way
– the early 1700s when coconuts shells were an exotic material for carving into art works
– and 1840 when I first find a cookery book using grated fresh coconut in pudding.
Allow few years between reverently carving away at coconuts on the one hand and feeding it to the kids in the nursery for High Tea on the other
and it makes a Regency coconut introduction plausible.
"Regency, meet Coconut.
Coconut, meet Regency."
Anyway, if I haven’t come up with a good “Year Of Fresh Coconut in London" after literally three hours of research, I see no reason why you can’t chuck the odd coconut into the Regency.
If you had to do without one common flavoring, what would it be?
I could see doing without rosewater … and coconut … and, I think, basil.