Giving us our daily bread

Laura Dowrich-Phillips finds out how cassava bread is made in St Lucia, and of course takes a taste

A batch of cassava bread before it is cooked. Photograph by Laura Dowrich- PhillipsAn employee at Pilas Kassav peels cassava, which is then processed to make farine. Photograph by Laura Dowrich- Phillips

Plas Kassav is an oasis along a lonely stretch of road through the village of Anse la Verdure on St Lucia’s west coast. Nestled in a wooden structure that doubles as a factory and café, the family-run business is a popular stop for tour guides busing tourists to Soufriere Village and St Lucia’s famous “drive-through” volcano.

The establishment gained international fame when it was featured last year on Paula Deen’s show on the USA’s Food Network channel. The restaurant, whose kwéyòl (St Lucian patois for creole) name means Cassava Place, started in 1998 as a simple galvanise hut where Joan Henry, the owner, sold plain cassava bread to maintain her family of nine children.

Encouraged by the Department of Agriculture and the Small Business Association, she expanded the business, incorporating her children into the daily activities. Rosario Wilson, one of her sons, who also doubles as the company’s marketing manager, says there are currently five of them working alongside their mother. In addition to the children, six other workers assist.

It’s not just about selling bread. The family processes raw cassava to make farine (cassava flour), then concocts a variety of flavoured unleavened breads—coconut, cherry and raisin, apple and raisin, cinnamon, banana, chocolate, saltfish, smoked herring, ginger, peanut, pineapple and apricot. The bread can be eaten with tea or any beverage of one’s choice, Wilson says, and the plain ones can be eaten as sandwiches with fillings.

Being a bona fide chocoholic, I purchased the chocolate bread, which was sweet and doughy and tasted like cocoa tea. The flavoured breads cost EC$6, while the plain ones are EC$4.

Cassava is a mainstay in Caribbean cuisine. A long, starchy root vegetable, it featured prominently in the diets of the Amerindian people who populated the Caribbean before Christopher Columbus showed up. In St Lucia, farine and cassava bread are two legacies of the Amerindian cuisine that have remained, and in many villages the cassava is still processed in traditional ways.

Plas Kassav’s small factory is open for guided tours, where visitors can see traditional methods used, watch Henry making the flat, brown cakes, and see them cooking in a traditional oven.

Activity at Plas Kassav begins early in the morning. The entire process, Wilson says, takes approximately six hours.

“We open about 7 am, clean up the building, and fetch the cassava, if there is no raw material. We used to grow it, but now we buy about 99 per cent,” Wilson explains.

“Sometimes the family wakes up about 5 or 6 am to start the peeling process, so when the workers come they can take over.

“After that we start the process to make farine. We grate the raw material in an automated grater, and from that you have to press it to extract the liquid in a screw press.

“You then sift the grated cassava and the parching begins in the big iron pot. You take the farine flour and make the cassava bread.”

The quantity depends on demand. On average, Plas Kassav sells over 100 cakes a day. During the annual creole festival, Jounen Kwéyòl, at which all things St

Lucian are celebrated each October, they sell more. The popular bread is also sold in supermarkets in Castries, St Lucia’s capital.

Laura Dowrich-Phillips