Taste of Life: When ‘Poonah’ grape voyaged to blossom in England - Hindustan Times
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Taste of Life: When ‘Poonah’ grape voyaged to blossom in England

ByChinmay Damle
Jan 18, 2024 09:28 AM IST

Later sources were ambiguous about the distinction between West St Peter’s, Raisin des Carmes, and “Poonah grape”. In the twentieth century, several botanists and horticulturists started treating the three varieties as synonymous with the Lombardy grape

Pune: On January 16, 1936, Purushottam Vinayak Marathe, district superintendent, Akola, addressed a gathering of women assembled on the premises of the Hujurpaga School on the occasion of Makar Sankranti. The event was organised by a women’s group that aimed to educate its members about being good mother, and wife and serving the country at the same time.

Later sources were ambiguous about the distinction between West St Peter’s, Raisin des Carmes, and “Poonah grape”. In the twentieth century, several botanists and horticulturists started treating the three varieties as synonymous with the Lombardy grape. (Getty Images/iStockphoto (PIC FOR REPRESENTATION))
Later sources were ambiguous about the distinction between West St Peter’s, Raisin des Carmes, and “Poonah grape”. In the twentieth century, several botanists and horticulturists started treating the three varieties as synonymous with the Lombardy grape. (Getty Images/iStockphoto (PIC FOR REPRESENTATION))

Marathe had been the jail superintendent for 20 years in towns like Akola, Jabalpur, and Amravati, and made special efforts to grow a large garden with the help of convicts at the jail premises. He used the knowledge gained from reading several books on horticulture published in India and Europe to develop gardens and farms at prisons where he worked.

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He had written and published a book on cultivation of cabbage and cauliflower, and another on the cultivation of fruits like grapes, peaches, and oranges. While addressing the audience at Hujurpaga, he mentioned that the dietetic value of fruit had been proved, and educated men had understood the necessity of including fresh fruits and vegetables in the regular diet, and it was time women followed suit. He told them that eating fruits was important for their health; they would make a good wife and a mother and thereby serve the country only if they took care of their health.

Indians in the twentieth century were not known to eat a lot of fruits. Even in a city like Bombay, the sale of fruits and vegetables amounted to only half an ounce (oz) per day per head, according to DR Gadgil and VR Gadgil (A Survey of the Marketing of Fruit in Poona, 1933) as compared to 5 oz in London and one pound (16 ounces) in New York.

Marathe made a special mention of seasonal fruits like grapes and oranges that were beneficial for health.

When Sir Evan Napean became the Governor of Bombay in 1812, he decided to pursue his favourite hobby of horticulture. In a letter written to Sir Joseph Banks, English naturalist, botanist, and a patron of natural sciences, on April 10, 1814, Napean mentioned that his attention had been very much directed to the collection of fruit trees, flowering shrubs, plants, and flowers; and, that he had not spared either trouble or expense in the pursuit of this “favourite subject”, and had from time to time sent home everything that he could suppose would be acceptable in England.

In 1814, Napean introduced a variety of grapes, called the “Poonah grape”, to Bombay. The vine had been brought to Poona from Shiroor, a village 52 km from the city, by one Major Lock in 1805. It was believed to have been originally introduced from Persia, by the way of Surat, to Aurangabad, and from thence to Poona, and its vicinity, where it was cultivated successfully. Lock named it the “Poonah grape” after observing that the fruit was of superior quality. Soon a large area was occupied by the vine in and around Poona.

Napean sent some vines of the “Poonah grape” to a nursery at Fulham and to Banks on board the “Cornwallis” under the care of Captain Digby in January 1813. Numerous attempts to introduce the variety to English gardens failed. Napean lent the most zealous assistance by sending vines by almost every ship. At last, in 1817, a living plant was received in England, which, under the care of one Mr Isaac Oldaker, at Spring Grove, was well established, and grew to be in a full bearing state.

The bunches of “Poonah grape” were large, well-shouldered, and tapering to a point. The fruit was oval, dark red when fully exposed to the sun, but pale when shaded, fleshy; with seldom more than two seeds in each. It was sweet, but not very juicy. This was a late sort and required as high a temperature to ripen it as the Muscat of Alexandria.

The “Poonah grape” was handsome but was considered of “second quality”. The best grapes, according to Napean, were from Kabul. In a letter to Banks, he mentioned that the “Vakil of Scindia” had tasted the fruit at Kabul and was mesmerised by the taste. The “Vakil” told him it was nothing like he had tasted before and was keen to introduce the fruit to Poona and Bombay. I have not been able to find any proof of the variety from Kabul being introduced to Poona by the “Vakil of Scindia’’.

The “Poonah grape” reached the American shores in the late 1830s. Some gardeners in England and America considered “Poonah grapes” the best of late crops. They grew freely, which gave them strength to carry a great crop; they ripened their wood early in the summer, which was in their favour for producing fruit the following year. The leaves remained on them all the winter as fresh and green as in summer, and the vines at the same time continued in a growing state, it enabled them to bring their fruit to perfection through the autumn and winter. After the fruit was ripe, it would hang a longer time before it shrivelled or decayed when the leaves were fresh and green than when they turned yellow and fell off.

However, “An Encyclopaedia of Gardening” written by John Claudius Loudon in 1824, objected to the “Poonah grape” being termed a new and better variety and mentioned that it had been present at the Brompton nursery for “an unknown length of time”. James Powell wrote in the “The Philadelphia Florist and Horticultural Journal” in 1852 that the “Poonah grape” and the West St Peter’s grape were the same. St Peter’s was a common moniker used by English nurseries in the nineteenth century.

“A Gardener” wrote in The Gardeners’ Chronicle, Vol 1, in 1841, that the “Poonah grape” was Raisin des Carmes. However, William Kenrick in “The New American Orchardist” clearly mentioned in 1842 that the two varieties were distinct.

Later sources were ambiguous about the distinction between West St Peter’s, Raisin des Carmes, and “Poonah grape”. In the twentieth century, several botanists and horticulturists started treating the three varieties as synonymous with the Lombardy grape.

In the late nineteenth century, several varieties of grapes were imported to India from Europe. Some of them were grafted on the local varieties in the Bombay Presidency. European grapes were considered superior to Indian fruit and were preferred by the Europeans.

Some Europeans, not satisfied with the quality of grapes in Poona, would procure the fruit from Nasik and make jelly once winter set in. Grapes were short-lived, and it wasn’t easy to preserve them at home unless one was making wine. Grape jelly was one of the most popular fruit preserves that allowed the lady of the house to both preserve grapes and make something that kids would enjoy. A wine called Brok was prepared in the Bombay Presidency by European housewives by spreading the grapes for fifteen or twenty days in the sun until they were half dry, after which the juice was expressed and the common wine process performed.

That day, after Marathe’s speech, a group of women demonstrated some recipes with fruits like guavas, oranges, and Indian jujube. One of them was “santryacha sudharas” where orange slices were put in thin sugar syrup. One could add grapes when in season instead of oranges, the audience was told.

Poona lost its vines gradually in the twentieth century. The “Poonah grape” has been immortalised by William Hooker, botanist and botanical illustrator, in a watercolour painting printed in one of the ten volumes known as “Hooker’s Fruits” which were commissioned by the Royal Horticultural Society to help standardise the nomenclature of cultivated fruit.

Chinmay Damle is a research scientist and food enthusiast. He writes here on Pune’s food culture. He can be contacted at chinmay.damle@gmail.com

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