My devotion to sourdough bread spawned from many reasons besides digestion and flavor, including a great fondness for nutrient dense carbohydrate fuel. Winter traveling in hot and humid tropical climates where ovens are scarce and quality unrefined wheat is the least likely ingredient to be found in the nearby tienda, I've had to embrace creative strategies for satisfying starchy cravings. Thankfully, Little Corn Island off the coast of Nicaragua has a few local choices that are appropriate candidates when even the best coco rice falls disappointingly short.
The most surprising discovery of grazing my way through the island's Caribe cuisine was a lime green orb of hefty proportions called breadfruit. Its softly spiky, football-sized presence matures in pendulous adornment on tall handsome trees with deeply dissected, waxy green leaves. They caught my eye as soon as I began circling the island. I discovered I had tried it previously in Caribbean neighborhoods in Brooklyn, but without memorable effect. Now becoming reacquainted out of botanical curiosity, its name alone endeared me to it before I even set its versatile flesh to my lips!
According to the National Tropical Botanical Garden there are three recorded species in the fruit's genus, over 120 natural varieties, and over 2,000 cultivated selections. Atocarpus atilis, commonly known as breadfruit, originated in the South Pacific and is thought to have evolved from A. camansi or the breadnut native to Papua New Guinea. Extensive research has been conducted over the last 30 years on its cultivation and potential to provide island communities with more sustainable food sources. One mature tree alone can produce up to a half ton of fruit a year! It is rich in nutrient dense carbohydrates including potassium, Vitamin C, magnesium, and even iron. Unfortunately, its greatest criticism has been a bland taste. I found its mouthfeel remarkably addictive, not unlike a freshly baked loaf's yeasty aroma and soft, alluring texture.
The fruit has a fascinating history migrating from the South Pacific. Captain Cook and his crew were first introduced to this fruit in 1769 when they visited Tahiti. Two naturalists on board, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, lauded the merits of breadfruit after returning to England. It was considered to possess great potential in the British West Indies where it could be used to feed the slaves who worked the sugar cane fields. In 1787 the King dispatched Captain William Bligh on the H.M.S. Bounty to collect breadfruit plants suitable for relocation. The Bounty reached Tahiti in 1788, and the crew spent six months there collecting and propagating seedlings for transplant. During their stay, the crew lived ashore with Polynesian women and were highly disgruntled when forced to sail. After leaving Tahiti in April 1789 with over a thousand breadfruit plants, Captain Bligh was overpowered in a mutiny by members who had suffered harsh punishments and an obvious desire to return to their companionship in Tahiti. As a result, Bligh and 18 others were set adrift on the ship's open launch that landed crew intact 41 days later on Timor, a Dutch island to the west. Meanwhile, the mutineers, led by officer Fletcher Christian, retrieved their Tahitian companions before settling on Pitcairn Island. Finally on a later expedition when breadfruit eventually made it to Kingstown, Jamaica and St. Vincent, the black slaves rejected the fruit.
My first encounter with breadfruit on Little Corn was in a locally prepared stew specialty called Rundown (pronounced Rondon). The coconut-laced broth was a fantastic backdrop for lobster and fish with plantains, breadfruit, and malanga (another tropical starch known botanically as Xanthosoma) rounding out the bulk of the meal. When served to me the next day, I barely recognized breadfruit sliced thinly and fried into chips simply dusted with salt, an accompaniment to kingfish ceviche.
But the most memorable feasting was helping prepare it beachside, soaked in a bucket of saltwater for seasoning before being dropped into a vat of hot oil positioned over open fire. Eaten alongside fried fish we handline caught and cleaned just hours before, it was an excellent snacking food that helped temper the cerveza and rum fueled activities organized by the friendly crew at The Lighthouse.
Breadfruit has great potential to provide food security in tropical climates and can be used successfully in agroforestry programs providing a low-maintenance, highly productive crop. Some of its cultivars exhibit tolerance to salt spray as well, making it an excellent candidate for communities experiencing coastal erosion such as I witnessed with alarming effect on Little Corn. It apparently makes wonderful flour for pancakes and can also be mashed or fermented into delicious preparations when combined with other flavors.
The Breadfruit Institute has even held culinary cook offs in Hawaii to promote the use of breadfruit, known locally as 'ulu, to promote the humble fruit's ability to cut down on the islands' over 90% reliance on food imports. It has been a slow embrace however, even with dishes such as 'ulu tarts, empanadas, and fresh salads on offer. I'll take mine flash fried with a touch of salt, served snack style on the beach. Because toast on the beach just isn't quite as appealing.