Anyone who ever stepped ashore in the Caribbean has seen them and marvelled, hung with their trademark large green globes, not quite football sized usually but certainly heavier, and big enough to satisfy several appetites at one sitting. Widespread and prolific, you’ll spot them in backyards and boulevards and most places in between, and never confuse them with the cannonball tree. They seem such a part of island landscapes as to have been around forever but that’s far from the case. So whither did it come this island staple, the solidly reassuring breadfruit? And therein lies a story, a gloriously improbable one, writ large in the annals of seamen, tall tales and naval history.
In the late 18th Century plantations in Jamaica and St Vincent struggled to feed their slaves at times while elsewhere in the Pacific British botanist Joseph Banks, who was accompanying Captain Cook, had noted breadfruit as a major food source amongst the South Sea islanders. Plans for transhipment were made and on April 4th 1789 HMS Bounty under Captain William Bligh set sail from Tahiti with 1,085 of the precious seedlings bound for St Vincent. Every schoolchild, and some grown ups, know what happened next. Come on, you should, it’s been immortalized in film and word a few times too.
The Mutiny three weeks into the voyage on April 28th was led by Fletcher Christian and resulted in Bligh and nineteen loyalists being set adrift in an open 23foot launch, effectively a rowing boat in the Pacific. A year later, Bligh was back in England a hero having somehow navigated 3,600 miles of Southern Pacific ocean to Timor, an epic journey in any era and now considered as the greatest act of courage and open boat seamanship in history. By 1793 he was back in Tahiti and delivering the inaugural consignment to Kingstown, St Vincent where his diligence is duly recorded on a suitably impressive tree specimen in the Botanical Gardens: “Breadfruit Artocarpus Incise - a sucker from one of the original plants introduced by Captain Bligh in 1793 on HMS Providence” it proudly proclaims.
A year later they were growing around the Caribbean, and nourishing generations of West Indians ever since. It came as quite a surprise a couple of years ago to learn that Jonathan Agnew, BBC Radio’s Cricket Correspondent, an erudite and worldly man and veteran of several full tours of the Caribbean, had neither heard of nor set eyes upon the self same arboreal wonder. Remarkable. After all, the glossy green foliage, rent into long leaved yellow veined fingers, is as distinctive as the fruit itself, especially when glistening in the rain. It’s not to everyone’s taste of course, and an overcooked breadfruit is dry and starchy. Rosemary Parkinson however, the Caribbean’s First Lady of Food and all things thereof, has a few ideas on how to maximise this most singular of fruit—firstly, like all locals, regard it as a vegetable, "It’s dense and heavy and don’t try and carry more than a handful or you’ll do yourself a mischief."
Some people swear that roasting is best, over coals for about an hour, the skin peeled off later and buttermelt poured over the fleshy white interior, avoiding the pithy core (breadfruit cou-cou in Barbados has herbs and spices added to the mash); it’s used in soups, for pickling, in oil downs and is excellent when sliced, baked or fried too (don’t over indulge though, it’s filling, and that from someone who likes to nyam). The blossom can be made into jams, the flour into porridge or dumplings, and all manner of medicinal benefits are attributed from a chewing gum pain reliever made from the sap to bush tea from the leaves to counteract headaches, asthma and high blood pressure. Young buds are also chewed for mouth and throat ailments.
Whatever its benefits, the tree looks here to stay, West Indian to its Pacific roots. If “breadfruit” hadn’t stuck, then “lifefruit” could have worked.
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