Nature’s Bread | Green

It’s delicious, nutritious, and popular across the Caribbean. Even so, breadfruit — brought to the region from the Pacific more than two centuries ago — is still underappreciated for its potential role in increasing regional food security, and helping to green our cities. Erline Andrews learns more

  • Illustration by Shalini Seereeram

Dr Keith Rowley, the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, is fond of breadfruit, the starchy, cantaloupe-size fruit — green on the outside, cream-coloured on the inside — that is one of the main ingredients in oil down, a dish popular throughout the Caribbean. A photo that made the rounds online last year showed Rowley, his face intent, standing at a kitchen counter cutting up pig tails, as a large breadfruit in the foreground waited its turn to go under the knife. Presumably he then cooked the meat and the fruit with coconut milk, the other main ingredient in oil down. 

Rowley’s affinity for breadfruit has inspired two philanthropists to use the fruit to try to bring about agricultural and social transformation in T&T. “Like everybody else, we buy breadfruit at home,” says Raul Bermudez. “We cook it, we eat it.” In 2015, he heard Rowley talk about breadfruit in a radio interview.  “I Googled breadfruit for the first time,” he recalls, “and discovered what a wondrous, complete food it is. The following day I went out and bought a breadfruit tree.”

Four years later, that tree is about fifteen feet tall and has finally started to bear. It’s featured in photos and videos on the Facebook page of Breadfruit Trees, the project Bermudez started with friend and collaborator Omardath Maharaj, an agricultural economist attached to the University of the West Indies, St Augustine. Maharaj is a well-known eat-local advocate, previously responsible for bringing Sesame Street producers to Trinidad to film pineapple farmers for a segment on the popular children’s show.

The goal of the Breadfruit Trees project is to cover as much of Trinidad and Tobago as possible with the trees, beautifying the landscape, providing a bulwark against flooding, mitigating the effects of climate change, and providing a source of income and food for people in need. “When you drive into [Port of Spain], most times you’re met with traffic, pollution,” says Maharaj, interviewed in his small but high-ceiled office. A potted immature breadfruit tree stands in one corner, its broad, glossy, pronged leaves making it as attractive as any other decorative plant. “You don’t think it would be lovely to drive into the city and see it covered in breadfruit trees?” he asks. “That’s a message we could send to the world.”

Working with the University of the West Indies, the Roman Catholic church, schools, community groups, and individuals, Bermudez and Maharaj estimate they have seen the planting of around three thousand trees in different parts of the country, including 210 on the sprawling compound of the prison facilities in east Trinidad. The trees will eventually help with a programme that trains inmates in food production. The goal is to plant a thousand trees on the prison grounds. “We can use agriculture for people coming out [of prison] to get back to an income and reintegrate into society,” says Maharaj.

Maharaj and Bermudez buy trees from the state-run plant propagation station with their own money, and give them away. They encourage other people to do the same. “For a family to go and have a decent meal in a city restaurant costs what it would cost you to buy 105 trees,” says Bermudez. 

Breadfruit is going through a worldwide revival. A slew of news articles and TV programmes in recent years have hailed it as a “superfood,” extremely good for both the human body and the environment. It’s gluten-free, low in fat, and packed with essential nutrients and fibre. The tree is easy to maintain and is one of the world’s highest yielding crops. It can be used in a dazzling variety of ways. The fruit can be used to make French fries, chips, and pasta. Other parts of the tree can make insect repellent and latex.

“It’s a gift we’re ignoring,” says Mary McLaughlin, a retired geologist. She and her husband Michael founded Trees That Feed (TTF), another organisation that has been lifting breadfruit’s profile. McLaughlin grew up on a farm in Jamaica, where she was exposed to the fruit. “Even as a child, I knew that the breadfruit tree was special,” she says. TTF starting operating in Jamaica in 2009. Now it reaches eighteen countries in the Caribbean, Central America, and Africa, and is responsible for 200,000 fruit trees, most of them breadfruit, planted in these regions. 

TTF’s focus at first was propagating and planting trees. Eventually, they started to help small business people make breadfruit products using simple, cost-effective equipment. With the backing of academic peers in Illinois, where the McLaughlins live, TTF developed hand-operated machines to shred and dry breadfruit, then grind it into flour. The flour is used in a variety of ways. Most importantly, it makes porridge to feed schoolchildren in Jamaica and Haiti. In the latter country, the flour is also used to make child-appealing fruit bars by mixing it with dried fruit, shredded coconut, ginger, and molasses. “In Haiti, you’re saving lives,” says McLaughin of TTF’s work in that country, which is experiencing a food shortage crisis. “Children in the poorest communities have food, because there’s breadfruit flour.

In other parts of the Caribbean, breadfruit has even gone upscale. Captured on video and shared on Facebook, celebrated Barbados-based chef Adrian Cumberbatch demonstrates before a food festival audience how to prepare one of his specialities: a breadfruit bowl. That’s half a roasted breadfruit hollowed out and filled with various ingredients. In the video these are beets, chickpeas, tomatoes, lettuce, and a creamy vinaigrette. The result, greeted with applause, looks mouth-watering. 

“It’s in the presentation,” Cumberbatch explains in a recent interview. He charges between US$25 and $30 per bowl, and believes he could charge more. “It goes like that!” he says, snapping his fingers. Cumberbatch also makes breadfruit bowls using shrimp, saltfish buljol, crayfish, flying fish, and lobster.

Roasted breadfruit is a staple in Barbados, but now it’s increasingly served at high-end restaurants and hotels. “The chefs are elevating it,” Cumberbatch says. “It’s becoming very popular. It’s something you must have when you’re in Barbados.” 

Meanwhile, in St Croix in the US Virgin Islands, chef and restaurateur Todd Manley has come up with the world’s first breadfruit vodka. “In the tropics, we grow a lot of breadfruit, and you walk around and you see a lot of people let it hit the ground and waste it. That bothered me,” he says, explaining the origin of the idea. “In Tahiti, they call breadfruit the island potato, so if you want to make island vodka use the island potato.” 

His Mutiny Island Vodka, launched last year, is being distributed across the Caribbean and is due to launch soon in the United States. “My goal is to make the awareness of breadfruit — through Island Vodka — just blow up,” he says.

Back in Trinidad, on the Breadfruit Trees Facebook page, Raul Bermudez and Omardath Maharaj encourage followers to give breadfruit trees as gifts for Christmas and other occasions. “When a child is going to be married, give them a breadfruit tree to put in their home,” says Bermudez. “By the time they start to have children, you have that there.” 

Maharaj adds: “We may be germinating something that will carry on itself for generations to come.”

All about breadfruit

Originating in southeast Asia, the breadfruit tree (Artocarpus altilis) was first domesticated in the Philippines around three thousand years ago, and spread across the islands of the south Pacific by human travellers. It was famously introduced to the Caribbean in the late eighteenth century by Captain William Bligh of the Royal Navy, intended as a cheap, nutritious food source for enslaved Africans on British West Indian sugar plantations. Initially unpopular, the fruit over time became a staple of Caribbean cuisine. A single tree can produce up to two hundred fruit each season.