Breadfruit: superfood of St Vincent

Often thought of as stodgy and dull, the humble breadfruit has an exciting history that’s part of one of the most famous seafaring stories

A breadfruit tree brought to St Vincent by Captain Bligh in 1793,from the Kingstown Botanic Gardens. Photograph by Jonathan AliBreadfruit illustration by Nikolai NoelVice-Admiral William Bligh (1754 — 1817), unpopular and overbearing commander of HMS Bounty whose crew led a mutiny against. Photograph by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

On the face of it, the breadfruit isn’t the most exciting food in the world – just look at its name. But although it lives a quiet life now, it has an exciting history.

Breadfruit is a staple Caribbean food, but it’s not native to the region. Like many other fruit and plants, it was transplanted here and has made itself at home. The humble breadfruit arrived in 1793. It made its first landfall in the region in St Vincent, and it was brought by Captain William Bligh of the HMS Bounty.

Yes, that Captain Bligh and that Bounty—the one on which the most famous mutiny in the world took place. It’s been the subject of dozens of books and several Hollywood movies, including one starring Sir Anthony Hopkins as Captain Bligh, and Mel Gibson as chief mutineer Fletcher Christian – a role even more famously played by Marlon Brando in 1962.

That mutiny had its beginnings in the Bounty’s mission to bring breadfruit to the Caribbean.

In 1787, the Bounty set sail under Bligh’s command from England for Tahiti. His orders were to take breadfruit plants to the British colonies in the West Indies, as it was thought that breadfruit (scientific name Artocarpus, literally the Greek for “breadfruit”) would provide a cheap and plentiful source of food for the slaves.

All went well enough until the Bounty left Tahiti. Led by Christian, the ship’s mate, the crew grew impatient with the length of the journey. They missed the Tahitian women some of them had become involved with, and some of them saw Bligh as a martinet.

The story that Bligh took drinking water meant for his crew and used it to water the breadfruit plants has never been proved. But the fact is that on April 28, 1789, the mutiny took place. Bligh and those sailors loyal to him were set adrift in an open boat, and the Bounty sailed back to Tahiti. As she did so, the mutineers threw the precious cargo of carefully tended young breadfruit plants into the ocean. According to Bligh’s diary, Fletcher Christian shouted, “There goes the Bounty bastard, breadfruit Bligh!”

Yet “Breadfruit” Bligh persevered. After being adrift for a remarkable 47 days in the Pacific, with only a sextant to guide him and his men, he arrived at Timor. From there he returned to Britain, where he was court-martialled. (The Bounty and her mutinous crew had by this time made their way to remote Pitcairn Island, where Fletcher Christian was killed a few years later in a quarrel.)

Acquitted of the loss of the Bounty, Bligh set out for the south Pacific again, this time aboard the HMS Providence. He collected a new batch of breadfruit plants in Tahiti, then sailed to the Caribbean. He landed at St Vincent’s capital, Kingstown, on January 23, 1793, his mission at last complete.

Bligh went on to have a chequered career as both naval officer and a colonial governor, but nothing he achieved in later life could outdo the fame he gained during his pursuit of the breadfruit. He died in London in 1817 at 64, and the epitaph on his tomb at St Mary’s Church in Lambeth reads in part:

“Sacred to the memory of William Bligh, Esquire FRS Vice Admiral of the blue, the celebrated navigator who first transplanted the breadfruit tree from Otaheite to the West Indies.”
Think of any of a number of places in the Caribbean and quite often there’s a food strongly identified with it. Jamaica is ackee country, Grenada is famed for its nutmeg, and Barbados (or is it Tobago?) is the land of the flying fish. But nothing is connected more closely than breadfruit and St Vincent. Vincentians love their breadfruit – and they do regard it as “their” breadfruit, with good reason.

Today, you can scarcely go anywhere in St Vincent without being reminded that it is breadfruit country – and of the Captain Bligh connection. A third-generation breadfruit tree, a sucker from one of the original plants brought by Bligh, has pride of place in the island’s beautiful botanic gardens. There is an annual breadfruit festival. The breadfruit forms part of the logo of one of the island’s main supermarkets. There’s even a Captain Bligh rum.

Breadfruit trees grow throughout the length and breadth of the island, and Vincentians won’t hesitate to tell you which of the varieties of the fruit is their favourite, and the best way to prepare it. Their love of breadfruit can run to (humorous) hyperbole: one gentleman declared to me during my visit, “In St Vincent you can commit murder and get only two years in prison – but chop down someone’s breadfruit tree, and they give you life!”

The Vincentian love of breadfruit, however, does not seem to be matched in the rest of the Caribbean. Certainly not in Trinidad, where breadfruit often means only one thing: oil down, a one-pot dish of breadfruit simmered in coconut milk with pigtails and various herbs, a generous helping of which usually has the most soporific of effects.

Despite its reputation as a “heavy” food, however, breadfruit is actually more of a “superfood”, as Captain Bligh well knew. It is high in carbohydrates, iron, calcium and potassium, and –particularly in its riper stages – low in fat, and a good source of B vitamins.

Breadfruit is also quite versatile, and can be prepared in any of a number of ways. According to Dr Laura Roberts-Nkrumah, a lecturer in the Department of Food Production at the University of the West Indies at St Augustine, Trinidad, the different territories of the Caribbean have their own preferences for the preparation of breadfruit.

Roberts-Nkrumah, who has conducted research into breadfruit all over the globe for close to two decades, says, “In Jamaica and in St Vincent, people roast breadfruit. In Trinidad and Tobago and in Grenada, the favourite way is oil down, while in the Leewards, they like it boiled.”

Throughout the Caribbean, breadfruit pie is also common, and breadfruit chips are popular as a snack.

In her research, Roberts-Nkrumah has also come across some unexpected breadfruit dishes, including breadfruit ice cream, breadfruit pizza (the dough is made from breadfruit flour), breadfruit cake, various breadfruit drinks, and her own favourite, pickled breadfruit, a Barbadian specialty.
One of the areas of Roberts-Nkrumah’s research has been the commercial viability of breadfruit. Here there have been a number of challenges, including breadfruit’s seasonal nature and relatively short shelf life. Progress has been made in surmounting these challenges. There is also less of a stigma attached to breadfruit as “working-class” than there once was. Increasingly, breadfruit is finding its way into upscale supermarkets and on to restaurant menus.

Even with these successes, however, breadfruit’s potential remains sorely underexploited. Roberts-Nkrumah laments, “Breadfruit is one of those crops that has come in to the Caribbean, just sat there and been in our faces, and taken for granted.”

Over 200 years after William Bligh’s extraordinary efforts to bring breadfruit to the region, it’s time this remarkable food got the respect it deserves.

Recipe: Breadfruit in pesto sauce

Forget oil down. Breadfruit’s versatility means it can be prepared in a number of ways, not all of them sleep-inducing.

Here’s a recipe for a simple and sublime breadfruit in pesto sauce, the creation of chef Maria Spencer of Café 7, at the Fernandes Industrial Complex in Port of Spain.

The day I had the dish, it accompanied fish, but no doubt it would work just as well with meat, poultry or as part of a vegetarian meal, or even on its own.

Ingredients

3 lbs breadfruit, peeled and diced into half-inch cubes
1 ½ cups of basil, chopped
4 cloves of garlic
1 medium onion, chopped
½ cup finely grated parmesan cheese
½ cup walnuts or almonds, chopped
¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus a few tablespoons of olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Boil the breadfruit in a generous amount of salted water until cooked, about 20 minutes.

While the breadfruit is boiling, make the pesto. Put the basil, garlic, onion, cheese and almonds in a food processor and mince finely. While mincing, slowly add the olive oil in a thin stream until the pesto is emulsified, about five minutes.

Heat the remaining olive oil in a pot. Add the cooked breadfruit and sauté for a few minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

When breadfruit has taken on some colour, add the pesto. Heat through.

Serves six – eight people as a side dish (fewer if served on its own).