Friday, December 06, 2013

Cassava bread in 17th C Barbados.

Today I want to continue some of Richard Ligon’s story of his time in the English colony of Barbados in the 1640’s, as related in A true & exact history of the island of Barbados (1657.)  Ligon explains in his book the method of making the staple ‘bread’ (a sort of pancake) from cassava (manioc) root. The ‘poyson’ he mentions is cyanide, which must first be removed from the root, before it is safe for eating.

Bread, which is accounted the staffe, or main supporter of mans life, has not here that full taste it has in England; but yet they account  it nourishing and strengthening. It is made of the root of a small tree or shrub, which they call Cassavie;  the manner of his grouth I will let alone, till I come to speak of Trees and Plants in generall.

His root only, which weare now to consider, (because our bread is made of it) is large and round, like the body of a small Still or retort; and as we gather it, we cut slicks that grow neerest to it, of the same tree, which we put into the ground, and they grow; And as we gather, we plant. This root, before it come to be eaten, suffers a strange conversion; for, being an absolute poyson when 'tis gathered, by good ordering, comes to be wholsome and nourishing; and the manner of doing it is this: They wash the outside of the root clean, and lean it against a Wheel, whole sole is about a foot broad , and covered with Latine, made rough like a large Grater. The Wheel to be turned about with a foot , as a Cutler turnes his Wheel. And as it grates the root, it falls down in a large Trough, which is the receiver appointed for that purpose. This root thus grated , is as rank poyson, as can be made by the art of an Apothecary, of the most venomous simples he can put together: but being put into a strong piece of double Canvas, or Sackcloth, and prest hard; that all the juice be squeezed out, and then opened upon a cloath, and dried in the Sun, 'tis ready to make bread. And thus 'tis done.

They have a piece of Iron, which I guesse is cast round , the diameter of which is about twenty inches , a little hollowed in the middle, not unlike the mould that the Spectacle makers grinde their glasses on, but not so much concave as that,  about halfe an inch thick at the brim or verge, but thicker towards the middle with three feet like a pot , about six inches high , that fire may be underneath. To such a temper they heat this Pone, (as they call it) as to bake , but not burn. When 'tis made thus hot, the Indians, whom we trust to make it because they are best acquainted with it, cast the meal upon the Pone, the whole breadth of it, and put it down with their hands,  and and it will presently stick together : And when they think that side almost enough, with a thing like a Battle-dore, they turn the others and so turn and re-turn it so often, till it be enough , which is presently done. So they lay this Cake upon a flat board, and make another, and so another, till they have made enough for the whole Family. Thin bread they made, when we came first there, as thick as a pancake; but after that, they grew to a higher degree of curiosity , and made it as thin as a wafer, and yet purely white and crispe, as a new made wafer. Salt they never use in it, which I wonder at; for the bread being tasteless of itself, they should give it some little seasoning. There is no way it eats so well, as in milk, and there it tasts like Almonds. They offer to make Pie-crust , but very few attain to the skill of that; for, as you work it up with your hand, or roll it out with a roller, it will alwaies crackle and chop, fo that it will not be raised to hold any liquor, neither with, nor without, butter or egg.

But after many tryalls, and as often failings , at last, I learnt the secret of an Indian woman, who shew’d me the right way of it, and that was, by searsing [sifting] it very fine, (and it will fall out as fine , as the finest wheat-flower in England) if not finer. Yet, this is not all the secret, for all this will not cure the cracking. But this is the main skill of the businesse: Set water on the fire in a skillet, and put to it as much of this fine flower, as will temper it to the thicknesse of starch or pap; and let it boyl a little , keeping it stirring with a slice; and mix this with the masse of flower you mean to make into pye-cruft, which being very well mingled , and wrought together, you may add what cost you will of butter and eggs, and it will rise and stand nere as well as our past [paste] in England.

In spite of its inherent poison, cassava is an enormously important staple food in many parts of the world. Some of us know it best in the form of tapioca, and some of us (not me!) like it as bubble tea. I have had a little to say on tapioca in the past, and if you want to become acquainted with tapioca with tomatoes, or tapioca with melted cheese, or simply want to become reacquainted with the tapioca pudding of your childhood, please do so via the following links.


Les said...

I'd never heard of bubble tea before. I'll have to try it once it warms up again in about 6 months!

Gvixis said...

I love reading your column! Sheer joy x