Last week a group of around 20 Home Econo-mics teachers from across the country gathered at the Carnegie School of Home Economics (CSHE) to receive instructions from an Ecuadorean woman named Paulino Valenzuela on the various ways in which breadfruit can become a greater part of the local culinary culture.
Valenzuela resides in Barbados, runs a business of her own there and reportedly has an interest in importing breadfruit into Barbados from Guyana.
The Breadfruit Work-shop was put together by the local office of the Food and Agriculture Organisa-tion (FAO) and the Ministry of Agriculture. It reminded of a time more than 30 years ago when Guyana’s flirtation with self-sufficiency and buying local gave rise to numerous such fora.
Penelope Harris, the Principal of the CSHE had her own reasons for being interested in last week’s Breadfruit Workshop. She is in the process contemplating Carnegie’s evolving role in a country that seeks to develop a higher tourism profile. She sees the CSHE playing a central role in the development of indigenous recipes utilising local raw materials. Her line of reasoning is that if visitors don’t come to Guyana for the sun, sand and sea they may well come for the food.
The Breadfruit Work-shop got her attention with good reason. Over the years, breadfruit has appeared on local dining tables without ever really imposing itself on the national diet.
One might argue that we have missed out on a fruit that is well-respected as a staple in other parts of the world. In fact, it is only in relatively recent years that breadfruit has been commonly sold in local markets.
At the CSHE last week, the group of enthusiastic Home Economics teachers were cooking with Breadfruit Flour under Valenzuela’s guidance. At the start of the workshop most of them had conceded that they were not lovers of breadfruit, though they appeared more than a trifle enthusiastic about the products the flour can turn out.
As it turned out, the Breadfruit Workshop was a microcosm of a much wider interest in what Harris considered to be the far more important mission of causing the CSHE to become a national hub for the creation of myriad recipes using local raw materials.
The interview reflected on an earlier time when concepts like self-reliance and buy local had taken the country in the direction of dreaming of a revolution that embraced the transformation of local agricultural produce into manufactured foods.
Back in the 1970s, the initiative began haltingly and never really got off the ground for several reasons – including the fact that creating an industry went way beyond simply creating a product. Perhaps more importantly, the idea of investing in large-scale agro-processing never really caught on with what was then mostly a weak and unenthusiastic private sector that had become decidedly discomfited in a country where the government controlled the commanding heights of the economy.
Other constraints inhibited the private sector, like the fact that no persuasive studies had ever been done to provide evidence or otherwise of either a worthwhile market for locally produced manufactured foods beyond parochial patronage, or a reliable supply chain. In those days what is now described as agro-processing went on almost entirely in domestic kitchens; in the absence of small-scale investors being able to afford the infrastructure necessary to build bigger, more efficient factories.
Harris agreed that the Breadfruit Workshop was a reminder of the past though she said, “much has changed” since that time.
Breadfruit, these days, is being spoken of as one of those fruits that might even be pressed into service to help stave off a predicted global food crisis. The more immediate interest, however, was in how breadfruit could fit into the local manufacturing matrix. At the opening of the workshop, Agriculture Minister Dr Leslie Ramsammy announced that an agro-processing factory might be set up at the Guyana School of Agriculture. The thought is that such a factory might be useful for trials with value-added products made from breadfruit and other agricultural produce.
Little, it appears, is known about the breadfruit industry in Guyana. The tree grows fairly bountifully here, though.
Harris is interested in the potential of breadfruit flour. She talks about the need to develop local breadfruit orchards and about possible experimentation with the manufacture of the flour locally. Once the product is developed she will seek to ensure that the CSHE gets its hands on it.
Much of this, she says, is in anticipation of the emergence of the proposed Hospitality Centre.
The Breadfruit Work-shop also brought back memories of more than a quarter of a century ago when the then political administration’s import substitution policy ushered in experimentation with flour made from rice. It was not a success.
Harris believes that these are different times. Machinery might still be expensive but at least it’s available and a private sector that has expanded significantly over the past 30 years might be more amenable to investing in equipment to manufacture flour from breadfruit. She cites other incentives too: like the likely regional demand that could arise out of the current focus on reducing expenditure on extra regional food imports. Her focus, however, remains on the number of value-added products that can be made from local agricultural produce and how these can help to transform the country’s culinary culture. Breadfruit, she says, is only a start.