The Tropical Breadfruit: A tree with a surprising history
by Island Expert
Breadfruit has spread so thoroughly, both in Martinique and throughout the Caribbean, that a lot of people here mistakenly think this “domestic tree” originated in the West Indies! Not at all, I’m afraid. Not a single one of our early chroniclers of French Antillean life and culture – like Father Labat and R.P. Du Tertre – described it.
In fact, breadfruit was actually introduced to the Caribbean islands sometime at the end of the 18th century. The Encyclopedia of the Antilles narrows it down to one year: 1793, when the English introduced this remarkable plant everywhere from Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti) to Guadeloupe.
If you can believe it, the story of the breadfruit in our hemisphere starts with an expedition of the H.M.S. Bounty – the very same ship that inspired the famous movie “Mutiny on the Bounty.” King George III of Great Britain had commanded the vessel to bring breadfruit back to the Caribbean colonies, because planters wanted something cheap to feed their slaves. But as we know, their mission was a failure: on April 28, 1789 the Bounty crew mutinied. Lieutenant Bligh and anyone loyal to him were set adrift at sea (and miraculously survived).
The saga of the breadfruit doesn’t end there! Lieutenant Bligh set out with a new ship, Providence, in 1792 for Tahiti.
Here he succeeded in obtaining breadfruit plants to bring all the way from the South Pacific to the Caribbean. First, Bligh introduced them in St. Vincent (where the first tree was planted) and then in Jamaica.
(Breadfruit: scientific name, Artocarpus altilis (Park) Fosberg.)
Soon breadfruit occupied an essential place in the islanders’ diets. The fruit could be roasted, boiled like a vegetable, used to make fries, or cooked in the delicious “migan,” a dish that continues to be popular in Martinique today. (I’ve included the recipe at the end of this article.)
Research into the breadfruit has shown that it works quite well in the production of flour, syrup, nectar, cakes, and even wine, if you can imagine that. The breadfruit tree’s leaves and also the fruit itself has medicinal properties as well. You can grow a breadfruit tree with a simple cutting, but it will take three years for the tree to bear fruit.
It would be a good idea for us to get to know breadfruit better – because it’s a healthy, inexpensive food with great nutritional value.
HOW TO MAKE MIGAN
To make a good migan, you need a well-ripened breadfruit and a salted pig’s tail (or salted beef, dried codfish, or soy protein if you’re vegetarian). The night before, remove the salt from the meat or fish by soaking it in water, then cook it. Then peel the breadfruit, dice it, and cook it for 30 minutes in water. Then add chopped onion, garlic, spices (parsley, thyme, pepper, bay leaves, hot pepper, and cloves) and diced giraumon (or winter squash). Let this cook another 30 minutes, stirring regularly until the porridge becomes creamy. Serve hot. Enjoy your meal!
What a surprising history! We’ll have to try migan sometime soon. Thank you, Frantz, for this interesting article. We’re looking forward to your next contribution – about the amazing Caribbean sweet potato.
Photo credits: 1. Breadfruit, Tom Williamson, Flickr, 2. William Bligh plaque, Matt Brown, Flickr, 3. Multi-Color Ocean - Tahiti, tiarescott Flickr, 4. Breadfruit up close and spiky, Phillip Tellis, Flickr, 5 and 6. courtesy of the author. Flickr license here.