The Bread Lady Of Bequia

"Sorry mawdam. Ain’t no bread. Supply ship don’t reach and de island be all outta flour," announced the distraught West Indian owner of the only bakery on the tiny Caribbean island of St. Vincent.

This was bad news indeed for a cook on a charter boat who relied on this small establishment for the 12 loaves of bread necessary for a week’s cruising in the Grenadines with 10 hungry guests. Now, either I’d have to bake my own bread aboard, or, at the next island, pay a visit to the notorious Bread Lady Of Bequia.

For a decade my husband and I cruised between Grenada and Antigua in the Caribbean’s Windward and Leeward Islands. Often, supply ships failed to reach the ports where we provisioned. At those times we stopped at Bequia for bread made with the Bread Lady’s own private stock of flour, anticipating her sometimes erratic moods, and always wondering if she’d been inclined to bake bread that day at all!

Located nine miles south of St. Vincent at the northernmost tip of the Grenadines, Bequia is a small island still relatively uncluttered by tourism. At the time, it was only accessible by sea. Although the Bread Lady’s house rested conveniently on the very edge of the dazzling crescent beach surrounding Admiralty Bay where we anchored, she was almost as inaccessible as Bequia itself, only selling to locals and select members of the charter fleet who were "regulars" at the Bay.

On this day, our guests accompanied us on the foray ashore. Wearing straw hats and carrying empty, used brown paper bags (a luxury item in the islands, for paper must be imported), we made the pilgrimage to her small wooden shack, which was supported by cement blocks under each corner.

Our guests stood at a respectable distance outside her fence, for tourists were not allowed "ta clutter up mah yard." Gingerly we made our way through a garden inhabited by feisty roosters, squawking hens, skinny piglets, and dogs dozing in the shade of a frangipani tree.

The Bread Lady met us at the door mumbling something unintelligible, although we understood the West Indian dialect. She was a large, proud woman with a wizened face lined with dignity and decades of Bequian history.

"Come wid me," she ordered, and led us to the cooking shack located a few feet from her home. The food was prepared in a separate hut, precluding the possibility of destroying the home if the cooking fire spread.

Two magnificent, old, rusty 100-gallon oil drums, perhaps left behind by a former trading schooner, had been fashioned into twin ovens and were situated inside the shack amidst a clutter of pans and utensils. The aroma of loaves of golden bread cooling on a wooden counter permeated the air. The bread looked exquisite. She broke off two pieces of a hot loaf, thrust them at us, and wordlessly busied herself outside on the work counter — a board nailed between two palm trees. Devouring the feather-light, crusty morsels, we thanked her and paid.

Although she never allowed her picture to be taken or lost her gruff manner, we felt a bond with this woman, who over the years seemed to sense our respect for her age and occupation. At the height of the season, we called upon her weekly, and she seemed genuinely pleased by the rapt attention of our guests standing dutifully outside the fence, anxiously awaiting her homemade bread.

The Bread Lady never would divulge her recipe, but on days when you’re craving that fresh-baked aroma and taste, try these sweeter versions of bake-aboard breads.

Moist Mango Bread

2 cups flour
_ tsp. baking powder
1 _ tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. cinnamon
_ tsp. salt
1 _ c. sugar
3 eggs, beaten
2/3 c. vegetable oil
2 cups mangoes*, mashed OR
1 28-ox. can mangoes, drained
1/3 c. raisins
_ c. walnuts, chopped

Sift dry ingredients into a large bowl. Mix well. Add eggs, oil, mangoes, raisins, and nuts, mixing well after each addition. Mix by hand until creamy. Pour into a 5 x 9-inch buttered and floured loaf pan. Bake in preheated 350 degree F oven for 50 minutes to one hour, or until a wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool before slicing and serving. * If mangoes are unavailable, substitute 1 8-oz. can crushed pineapple, well drained; _ c. shredded coconut, well packed; 1 _ c. bananas, mashed.

Golden Carrot-Nut Bread

2 c. flour
1 _ c. sugar
2 t. cinnamon
2 t. baking soda
_ t. salt
_ c. grated coconut
_ c. currants
_ c. walnuts, chopped
2 c. carrots, grated
1 c. vegetable oil
3 eggs, beaten
2 t. vanilla

Combine flour, sugar, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt in sifter. Sift into large bowl. Add coconut, currants, and nuts. Mix well. Add carrots, oil, eggs, and vanilla. Stir thoroughly with a large slotted spoon. Pour into a 9 x 5-inch buttered and floured loaf pan. Place into a preheated 350-degree F oven for one to 1 _ hours. (Oven temperatures vary). To test for doneness, insert a wooden toothpick in center until it comes out clean.

Peanut Butter Bread

2 c. flour
1/3 c. sugar
2 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
_ c. peanut butter, chunk-style
1 c. milk
_ c. peanuts, chopped
1 t. vanilla

Sift flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl. Mash in peanut butter with a pastry blender. Stir in milk, peanuts, and vanilla until well-blended. Pour into an 8 _ x 4 _-inch buttered and floured loaf pan. Bake in a preheated 350-degree F oven for 50 minutes or until wooden toothpick comes out clean. Place on a wire rack for five minutes before cutting and serving. Delicious when freshly baked or sliced and toasted in the broiler, this crunchy bread makes a nutritious snack anytime of day or night.