Bammy bread bounces back

How an FAO project helped restore demand for a traditional Jamaican food product – and create new markets for the country’s beleaguered cassava farmers

Jamaica’s root crop producers were losing the battle against imported wheat

In mid-1992, FAO received a call for help from the Jamaican government. Local market demand for the root crop cassava had virtually evaporated, and the country’s cassava farmers were facing increasing economic hardship. The cause of cassava’s decline was the rapid growth in demand for bread made from wheat flour. Indeed, one of the island’s biggest new food enterprises was a flour mill built specifically to process wheat imported from Canada and the USA. Fewer and fewer Jamaicans were eating traditional foods, which meant a continually shrinking market for cassava and other long-established food crops produced by low-income small farmers.

Morton Satin, of AG’s Agricultural Support Systems Division in Rome, was immediately dispatched to Jamaica with a possible solution to the cassava crisis – the introduction of “wheatless” or high ration composite bread, which uses flours of indigenous origin in place of much of the wheat flour. Initially, however, Jamaican officials were not convinced. They pointed out that cassava was considerably more expensive than the highly subsidized, imported wheat. What’s more, conventional wheat bread was so well established in Jamaica that any alternative would meet great consumer resistance.

Local news. At breakfast in his Kingston hotel next morning, a somewhat discouraged Satin was browsing through the local newspaper when his eye fell on a small news item: a group of women in the village of Brown’s Hall were struggling to make ends meet selling something called Bammy bread. “I asked the waitress about it and she told me Bammy was a local bread made from the cassava root that people ate years ago. It was once the favourite accompaniment to a number of dishes, including fish, but you hardly saw it anymore.”

Cassava has been processed into a range of products in South America and the Caribbean since pre-Columbian times. Bread, pancakes and muffins (above) made from cassava flour are still produced in rural areas of Belize, Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras and Venezuela.

That same day, Morton Satin headed for Brown’s Hall with Robert Salmon, a local FAO staffer and – Satin says – “an unending source of local knowledge, customs and lore”. Salmon recounted nostalgically the process for making Bammy bread: first, the finely grated cassava root was heaped into baskets, then pressed overnight to squeeze out the juice, which contains a natural cyanide-based toxin. The cassava was then sifted to produce a coarse, cream-coloured flour that was piled into round metal rings and pressed down to form “bammies” – round cakes approximately 10 cm in diameter and 1 cm thick. The bammies were grilled on a hot, flat plate until golden brown.

Robert Salmon held that if people had easy access to bammies they wouldn’t hesitate buying them, despite the flood of wheat bread on the market. “Nothing,” he said, “goes better with fish than bammy”.

Finally at Brown’s Hall, Satin met the women’s group and took copious notes of the bammy production process. Youngsters peeled and washed the roots before passing them on to an old man who fed them into a rickety grinder. The pulp was drained of liquid in a simple hydraulic press, then sifted through wire mesh by three of the women. Once sifted, the cassava was piled into a metal rings on a thick flat iron plate over an enormous gas burner. The cooked bammies were then coolled and packaged in small, thin plastic bags.

“It was a fairly straightforward operation,” Satin says, “but the unsuitable hygienic conditions, the poor state of the equipment, the basic recipe used and the inferior packaging all contributed to a rather limited shelf-life of four to five days for the finished products. Considering the need to sell and distribute the products, this short shelf-life was a real constraint to the success of the operation.”

The women confirmed that sales were declining and that soon there would be no more bammy production in Jamaica: bad for the women of Brown’s Hall and bad for the few cassava farmers who continued to supply them.

Project Bammy. His enthusiasm renewed, Satin returned to Kingston and recommended a project to upgrade Bammy bread into a modern, convenient, marketable food product. The idea was accepted and Lorna Gooden, of Jamaica’s Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA), set up a training facility with FAO-supplied equipment, including a sturdy grinder, a robust hydraulic press and standard-sized moulding rings. All the equipment was locally made and the designs continually tested and improved.

Our favourite Bammy recipe

1 lb (about 700g) grated cassava
Pinch of salt
1. Place grated cassava in a muslin cloth
2. Wring out, discard juice, add salt
3. Prepare each bammy by pressing one cup of the mixture into a small, greased frying pan
4. Cook over moderate heat, turning when edges shrink from the sides of the pan (about 10 minutes per side) 5. Soak bammies in coconut milk for 5-10 minutes
6. Fry or grill till light brown
7. Butter the bammies and serve hot with fried fish

With support from the national Food Technology Institute, the project determined which mould inhibitors – the same ones used in conventional bread making – were most effective in extending shelf life, tested various package methods, and even designed labels for the finished products. Women groups were trained in all phases of production and in business management as well.

In the years following termination of the project, Satin heard reports that Jamaica’s bammy production was increasing steadily, and that cassava production volume was also on the rise. But even this promising news did not prepare him for what he found on a recent visit to Jamaica: “To my astonishment, I saw Bammy bread in every supermarket – all standardised, beautifully packaged and labelled with the names of the individual cooperatives making them. I could barely believe it.” RADA’s Lorna Gooden had even more to tell. Bammy Bread was now being packaged, frozen and exported all the way to Europe and North America. In fact, cassava was sometimes imported to Jamaica to meet the burgeoning demand of the bammy makers. Jamaican Bammy Bread was truly a commercial success story.

At breakfast in his Kingston hotel next morning, Morton Satin saw mounds of hot, steaming bammies laid out beside the locally prepared fish and – although eggs, bacon and toast were also on offer – other guests returning to their tables with plates piled high with bammies. “And it’s true,” says Morton Satin. “Nothing goes better with fish than bammy!”

Visit our pages on Food industries

See our related Spotlight features on Tropical starches and Coconut water

Published November 1999

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