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Selected feature stories from Abaco Life magazine

SMELL IT, TASTE IT, SAVOR IT:
IT'S FRESH-BAKED ABACO BREAD!

By Cathy Kerr

From the biblical "manna from heaven" to the reference in the Lord's Prayer to "our daily bread," it's always been the "staff of life." It was a key element in historical and literary events, too. The theft of a loaf of bread in "Les Miserables" started the chain of events that are the basis of that novel and play, and ignoring its importance to the citizens of France contributed to the downfall of Marie Antoinette. It's the first thing off grocery shelves when a storm is predicted, and an essential prelude to dinner at restaurants around the world. But in few places does it conjure the dreamy-eyed wistfulness that it does in Abaco.

Fresh-baked island bread goes with Abaco like sea water and sunshine. Patrons of many Abaco eateries return time and again for conch salad or grouper atop full-bodied island sourdough. And breakfast at most cottages or boats wouldn't be complete without a thick toasted slice topped with a dollop of melting New Zealand creamery butter and a spoonful of mango jam.

Every Abaco community has a baker, if not a bakery. On Man-O-War Cay, locals and visitors alike harken to the sound of Lola Sawyer's golf cart, which is laden with fresh bread and her legendary cinnamon rolls, ready for direct sale to local businesses and the waiting public. Lola, a lifetime resident of Man-O-War, has been baking bread in her kitchen for many years, and her secrets are closely guarded.

At McIntosh Restaurant and Bakery in Green Turtle Cay, Denise McIntosh arranges an assortment of daily-baked goods, including bread, pies and cakes on a counter for customer selection, and fresh bread and rolls are a foundation of the menu. Marsh Harbour residents collect their bread from a number of local sources, and appreciate the fact that Abaco is one of the few places where fresh-baked bread can be found in grocery stores. In Abaco, "sliced bread" isn't considered all that great!

As you walk through the Hope Town settlement, the wafting aroma of fresh-baked bread is likely to tempt you to slip through the screen door of Vernon's Grocery. The crusty brown loaves have been a key ingredient in his business for 40 years. Today he bakes white, whole wheat, multi-grain, onion, sourdough and sometimes raisin breads. Specialties include banana, date-nut, cranberry and guava-raisin, and on special request he'll even make dietetic salt-free bread. His tiny bakery, an annex to his grocery store, turns out an average of 100 loaves a day, which sell for $2.50 a loaf.

Like many Abaco bakers, Vernon learned the art of baking from his parents. His mom baked six to ten loaves at a time, three times a week, in a rock oven outside their Hope Town house. It was all sourdough, the unanimous choice of his eight-member family. "Baking bread was a social event where people shared one oven," Vernon remembers. "It was your afternoon work, and it was eaten with every meal - a major part of everyone's diet."

In those days, flour called "Cream of the West" came in 100 lb sacks on the mailboat. Before that, when flour was altogether unavailable or unaffordable, folks made "potato bread." No one in Abaco grew wheat. In settlements such as Sandy Point, people dug up roots to make a kind of bread called "pap." Johnnycake, made like a flattened and soft muffin, was once a "poor man's bread," but is today a fashionable addition to the dinner table.

Somewhat ironically, the secret to the consistency, taste and popularity of Abaco bread is Canadian flour. "U.S. flour does not make good bread," asserts Vernon. "It does not walk (knead) well." The Canadian flour of modern times carries brand names like Purity, Robinhood or Five Roses. One starts with sugar, salt and yeast, adding a liquid shortening or oil with warm water and flour. The dough is kneaded, allowed to rise twice, then shaped into loaves, put in pans and baked. The yeast makes it rise. In Vernon's gas convection ovens, 48 loaves can be produced in about 30 minutes. About half his working day is spent baking bread.

Of course, there are other delicacies emanating from Abaco ovens: fresh coconut or key lime pie, cakes, tarts, rolls and a steamed and boiled jelly roll treat called guava duff. But bread is king. In fact, dozens of loaves leave Abaco each week as gifts, as visitors balance them with carry-on luggage, hoping customs agents won't prod them into inedible lumps. But even when the transport is successful, many later realize that one key ingredient is missing: a morning sunrise over an Abaco beach.

E-mail: jimkerr@mindspring.com

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