Simply put, all other things being equal, as far as tastiness and texture go, the gustatory consensus appears to tilt slightly toward the Gros Michel.
Or at the very least, for those who have written about having tried this ‘great banana of yesteryear,’ it is clear that the transition to the Cavendish marked somewhat of a downgrade.
As someone who has actually tried this elusive banana cultivar, I second this opinion.
There’s no question that the Gros Michel is the more fragrant banana, is the sweeter of the two, and also feels more ‘robust,’ for the lack of a better word.
Just make sure you eat them ripe because otherwise, they’ll taste exactly like the Cavendish.
It is only after the starch has been processed into sugar – as evidenced by the occurrence of brown and dark spots on the outer layer of the peel – that the difference becomes noticeable.
What Was So Great About The Gros Michel?
From personal experience, and for the most part, the comparative advantages and selling points of the Gros Michel are exactly as described by author Dan Koeppel in his book Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World:
“By all accounts, Big Mike [the Anglicized name for the Gros Michel] was a more spectacular banana than our Cavendish. It was larger, with a thicker skin, a creamier texture, and a more intense, fruity taste.” (p. xiv)
However, as a caveat, I must say the difference is admittedly subtler than I would have expected – especially considering the fact that the fruit I consumed was a premium product grown more or less artisanally in the sunny climes of Miyazaki Prefecture, in Southern Japan.
Furthermore, the NEXT 716 PREMIUM BANANA – as this luxury banana is called – has been bred to take on a rather interesting characteristic in that the peel is also fully edible, so this is the crème de la crème even within the already rarefied and coveted Gros Michel variety.
Overall, it is a phenomenal banana and I would take it over the Cavendish any day of the week, but it’s not the earth-shattering experience I had initially anticipated.
What’s more, the NEXT 716 costs at least a dozen times as much as the Cavendishes adorning the aisles at my local supermarket, so I most definitely didn’t get my money’s worth.
This banana of yesteryear is nigh impossible to find and extremely expensive, but all other things being equal, and discounting the phenomenon of familiarity and acquired taste, there is hardly any reason to favor the Cavendish over the Gros Michel.
So, What Is the Best-tasting Banana?
Taste is of course subjective, but for what it’s worth, Dan Koeppel volunteers the Lacatan, which hails from the Philippines, as both his favorite banana cultivar and also perhaps the best replacement for the Cavendish, should the current top banana become commercially unviable as a result of the spread of TR4.
He describes the taste as “lush and full bodied, with an intense flavor that recalls homemade banana ice cream.” (p.36)
According to the author, the Lacatan is miles ahead of the competition and makes the Cavendish – and by extension, the Gros Michel – taste drab and dull.
The idea that the variant currently gracing our supermarket aisles (or even its predecessor, for that matter) might not necessarily be the world’s tastiest banana hardly comes as a surprise.
After all, the banana industry has always been riddled with compromises necessitated by logistic constraints, so it’s not like the Gros Michel itself was the pinnacle of flavorful indulgence to begin with, as far as bananas are concerned.
In fact, there are over a thousand different types of bananas grown locally and regionally throughout the world.
Blue Java – The Technicolor Banana That Wasn’t
Bananas come in all sizes and colors, and with varying taste profiles so, in an ideal world, consumers would be able to pick from a vast array of choices – from the Brazilian Prata to the Blue Java banana, which is also called ice-cream banana because of its texture.
Incidentally, according to an article in USA TODAY, while Blue Java bananas do indeed have a bluish hue when unripe, the color is often digitally manipulated in images found online to make the fruit appear bright blue.
In reality, the color is much more muted and shifts to yellow once the fruit starts ripening anyway so, as much as I would like to believe otherwise, the idea of bright-blue bananas that look like they came straight out of a 7-Eleven Slurpee machine falls strictly within the realm of science fiction.
The world of bananas is a rich tapestry, but ultimately, large-scale commercial operations require a standardized product that is easy to ship.
To wit, the Cavendish was pushed for its disease-resistant properties, but it only became a viable substitute for the Big Mike once a way was devised to transport these fragile bananas while preventing any mushy spots resulting from bruising.
Many great technological advancements have been made since the last Gros Michel shipment made its way to the United States in 1965, so it is conceivable that a solution could be arrived upon allowing for the production and worldwide distribution of the Lacatan.
However, the problem of familiarity remains: over the century and a half since the banana became available in the US, consumers have come to expect this fruit to come in a specific shape, color, and taste.
As such, the transition to the creamier, richer Lacatan would probably constitute a rather serious gambit for producers and distributors to undertake.
A very reluctant gambit, at that, considering how vocal Thomas McCann – a senior official at the precursor to today’s Chiquita International – was in his belief that consumers would turn their backs on the company should it ever try to pull the Cavendish switcheroo.
His prediction did not come to pass, but it was by no means a completely unfounded one: after all, you don’t change a winning team, even if that means going through plantation after plantation in country after country, as the number of places you can grow your banana crops in continues to dwindle.
Yet, an interesting development over here in my own backyard of Japan gives me hope that a more or less smooth transition could potentially be achieved.
The Lacatan and Señorita Bananas Come to Tokyo
I’m referring to the introduction of the Lacatan to the Japanese market, by the agricultural multinational corporation Dole, in 2009.
This was admittedly done in a gimmicky manner as, rather than emphasizing obvious qualities like its taste and creamy texture, the company instead inexplicably chose to market the Lacatan primarily as a good source of energy for athletes.
To cement this connection between Lacatan and sports, Dole doled out (pun intended) this banana to all 30,000 people participating in the Tokyo Marathon held in March of that year.
It would appear the Lacatan is no longer part of their product lineup, but Dole now offers the Señorita cultivar—a smaller and sweeter banana that is genetically closer to the Lacatan than to the Cavendish.
The fact that Señorita bananas imported directly from the Philippines can be found (albeit with some effort) in supermarkets in Japan gives me hope not just that existing supply chains could be tweaked to accommodate a successor to the Cavendish, but also that consumers will start pushing for greater and more diverse choice when it comes to the banana.
-Koeppel, Dan; Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World; specifically p.151, 236
“The final Gros Michel bananas to reach the United States were sold in 1965.”
“My nomination for a new banana is Lacatan.”
-NPR Special Series — Fresh Food; Bananas: The Uncertain Future Of A Favorite
“My favorite is called the Lacatan. It’s from the Philippines.”