A couple months ago I taught a bread making workshop to a group of ladies on the island of Rendova. It was the same village that we found Erol to do the inlay work, which is how it all came about. We had spent over a week anchored in the quiet bay and gotten to know some of the people who lived there. One of the village elders regularly paddled out in his canoe around dusk. The Old Man came for “story”, which sometimes meant to chat and most other times to check up on what’d we done during the day as we had become grist for daily village gossip mill. The day before we left the topic of making bread came up and by the end of the conversation it was organized that I would lead a workshop when we returned.
We sailed away and explored the Marovo Lagoon for more than a month. We planned on stopping back at Rendova for only two days, so I intended on bringing with me the flour and yeast required for the bread making workshop, as the small local store didn’t stock them. I went to three stores in the pouring rain to find the 10kg bag of flour but thanks to our giant waterproof bag I got it back to the boat dry. (Not only was the ship late that week but flour is most often sold repackaged into 1 or 2kg plastic bags, and full of bugs.)
We pulled into the little harbour on Rendova late one Saturday afternoon and the Old Man paddled out shortly after we arrived to remind me about the workshop that had been arranged. I assured him I had not forgotten; in fact I had come prepared. I asked him to rally the ladies for 0800 on Monday morning.
You see the village was divided.
Half the people were Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) and worshiped on Saturday, and half were Methodist and worshiped on Sunday. A wide lane ran through the centre of the village physically separating the houses of the SDA people and the Methodist people. Although they seemed to tolerate each other, even sending their children to the same school, I had felt some underlying tensions during our last visit. The Old Man was SDA and I wanted to make sure that everyone interested had a chance to attend, not just the women under his influence. Monday would be neutral ground.
On Monday at 0745 Steve loaded me, an esky full of kitchen equipment and the 10kg bag of flour into the dinghy and motored ashore. By 0800 I was fully set up at a large table-facing an empty room. This was not at all surprising, we are used to island time. But I had planned the class around the classic cooking show style of “Here’s one I prepared earlier!” and had already started a batch of dough.
Instead of just showing them how to made bread I was going to get a few ladies to participate. I would explain the sponge method I use to make bread and show them a sponge I had already started. Then I would get half a dozen ladies to make a sponge. While we waited for those sponges to activate I would explain and demo the kneading process using my sponge. Then while my dough was rising they would mix and knead their dough. By the time they had finished my loaf would be ready to bake. By the time mine was finished baking theirs would be almost ready for the oven. It would be a show, tell and do sort of class with none of the waiting around.
Finally by 0830 enough ladies had been corralled.
After a few men stood up to give speeches and blessings (then promptly left), we got started. The bread making went off which out a hitch. My planning and timing working out well so there wasn’t much dead airtime. The ladies all seemed to enjoy themselves, and had a natural knack for kneading and an instinctual idea of what the dough should look and feel like. A few were keen, asked questions and took notes.
We made loaves and buns but I also wanted to show the ladies what else they could do with the standard bread recipe, being mindful of what ingredients were locally available. We made some cinnamon buns using sugar, coconut oil (which the ladies distill themselves) fresh grated coconut and cinnamon that I brought but that is sold cheaply in town. We formed it into a Swedish Tea Ring and made a glazed of coconut milk and icing sugar to splash on when it was cooled. I also demonstrated a flatbread that I drizzled with a little oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper and decorated with some fresh garlic and chilies that I had purchased the night before from a woman who plucked them straight from her garden. I was pleased with the results, everything was rising beautifully and soon it was time to start baking.
I was worried when I first agreed to the workshop that we’d have trouble with baking the bread.
Not that I needed an oven. I “bake” bread on the stove-top all the time but that requires low, slow heat, which can be difficult when cooking over an open fire. And that is how most people in the islands cook, over fire and coals. But as I stepped into the cook house I knew I was in good hands.
Inside the thatched leaf hut a group of women were standing around a rusty 44 gallon drum. The air was hazy and laced with a scent that is now as familiar to me as the smell of the sea; burning coconut husks. The drum was our oven. Three quarters filled with river rocks the dry, brown coconut husks were piled inside and lit on fire. After a while the flames subside and a bed of glowing coals were nestled among the now hot stones. I plunged my hand inside the barrel to see how hot our oven was. I made it to the count of three before I pulled my hand away. Hot enough.
The first loaves of bread were placed inside and a piece of corrugated iron was used to cover the barrel. Beside the barrel was a deep shelf built at waist height that was covered in groupings of river rocks. A lady was burning more coconut husks on the farthest group of rocks, preparing more coal for the oven. Using a piece of green bamboo folded in half as a pair of tongs a layer of burning coconut was placed on the lid. The crescent shaped coals smiled like rouge smeared lips in the dim light. It was time to wait.
Without the men and the pikinini/children around (the restrictions of everyday society) the ladies were more relaxed, open, free. I start asking questions: What’s your name? Do you have pikininis? And the all-important, Where are you from? I spoke in a mix of English, pidgin and the few words Roviana that I have picked up. Our conversation was stunted the way that mixed language exchanges often are, but I began to feel excepted and soon we were exchanging stories and laughing together.
By the time the second round of bread was in the oven the crowd in the cook house had thinned.
But the number of ladies lounging in the “classroom” had swollen. As I shuttled back and forth with a timer, hot pans and freshly baked bread the word spread and more people showed up. A few hours passed and by the time I slipped the last pan of buns in the barrel the never end job of stoking the fire, moving the coals and baking the bread was left to me and a lovely lady named Susan.
The crowd in the classroom was getting rowdy but the oven had cooled and baking had slowed. I was beginning to feel like people were tapping their toes, giving us the hurry-up. I was beginning to feel like the Little Red Hen. When the buns were finally finished I pulled two from the hot pan and handed one gingerly to Susan, “The benefits of being the cook,” I told her as we quietly enjoyed our hard work. A sincere thank you for being the only one who stayed to help.
Back in the classroom I was asked to slice the loaves.
The crowd waited with baited breath as I divided the cinnamon tea ring and drizzled on the glazed. The Old Man suggested I should take a few slices for myself and Steve so I put two pieces of flatbread and some sweet, sticky cinnamon buns on a plate. Then I stepped back into the gentle breeze to cool off.
What followed can only be described as a feeding frenzy as a mass of bodies descended upon the table; children grabbing fistfuls of bread, women who didn’t even participate stacking one of everything on plates. In a matter of minutes all that was left were crumbs. I took off my apron and turned away to washed the dirty dishes at the communal spigot, squatting on a small concrete slab, my dress soaked in sweat.
Steve, who really wanted to attend the class but had the more pressing job of finding diesel since the tank was dead empty, arrived shortly everyone had finished eating. He eyed the table with surprise. I packed up my gear, leaving the few remaining kilos of flour and the yeast for the ladies of the village. We sat for a while longer, waiting for a signal that things were over, that we were excused. Then the Old Man leaned over to Steve and asked if we might be willing to pay the lady under whose house the classroom was located. He was speechless. But he did not put his hand in his pocket.
By the time we got back to the boat it was almost 1400.
I was tired, stinky and darn hungry. We sat in the cockpit and enjoyed the few bits of bread I had smuggled home. The flatbread was FABULOUS, the local garlic pungent but not bitter, the chilies just the right amount of heat. The cinnamon buns were just the sugar kick my body needed, sweet but not cloyingly so. If the results were the measuring stick the class was a success. Nevertheless I had been left with a bad taste in my mouth. I can only hope that some of the women learned something and that maybe a few will even try making bread on their own.