I had last weekend off, and aside from spending significant time pursuing sloth, I took the opportunity to make some more culinary experiments for my current writing project, the buccaneer cookbook. The focus this time was another staple, cassava.
Cassava is a starchy root that was usually processed into flour and baked into flat cakes. Pressing out its juice and toasting the dry grated flesh was necessary to mitigate its toxicity, though even at the time, it was understood some “sweet” cassava was safe to eat without this. Today, the cassava roots we can buy in our supermarkets are such sweet cassava.
The first thing I tried out was making my own cassava bread. This is an ethnographic staple, and it is easy to see why. European writers came from bread cultures and when they studied other cultures, they looked for their equivalent of bread. This looks and feels so much like bread that it clearly stood out to them, and Europeans themselves seem to have eaten a lot of it. Almost all travel accounts describe its manufacture: Grated cassava root is mashed into a dough and spread on hot stones or metal pans to cook.
Given I have never successfully made any cassava bread, my experiment here was very basic. I used finely grated, dried cassava – known by its trade name as gari – and water to make a succession of three doughs, one very dry, the second about slightly mushy, the third close to a thick liquid. After trying to shape all three into patties, I cooked them in a crepe pan.
The best result was achieved with the medium-wet dough on a gentle heat, pressing down to produce an even thickness. I flipped the small patties, but historically, loaves were typically too large to turn over and would thus be cooked from the bottom. Lionel Wafer describes them as resembling oatcakes, brown only on one side, and writes that they were dried in the sun after cooking.
Eaten fresh, as I did on Sunday, the cassava bread had a distinctive tart flavour and a soft centre. I wondered whether I had undercooked them, but even the ones I left in the pan for much longer than I would ever cook a pancake stayed soft. The ones I reserved for keeping overnight turned hard and brittle the next day. I tried them tonight; They are the consistency of thin knäcke and have lost practically all flavour. I can see then serving for hardtack and will try to use them in cooking in the next few weeks, as Labat describes.
In addition, I used part of the cassava root I bought to boil in water. Several accounts describe this as common practice among Native Americans, though I am sure this was only for sweet cassava. Boiled in salt water, the pieces turned soft like the firmer kind of potato does. If left to stew for hours, they would no doubt disintegrate the way Wafer describes when he talks of the cuisine of the Cuni of Darien. That will be worth its own experiment come time.
Third, I tried to see what happened if I would roast the cassava root. Both Wafer and Exquemelin describe this, and we probably underestimate how common this mode of cooking was in Europe at the time. Lacking embers of a cooking fire, I wrapped it in aluminium foil and stuck it in the oven. The result was convincing from a historical perspective, but easily the least pleasing of the three. Wafer states that roasted cassava roots would be cooked in pots with meat or fish, not eaten as they were, and I can easily imagine that.
To accompany the cassava in the etymological sense, I used the seasoning Labat described for roasted pork – lemon juice, allspice, chili, cloves, and ginger – with chopped onion as a filloing for rolled-up slices of pork belly. The combination worked very well, and next time I have guests over for another of my buccaneer meals, I think I will try this on a larger scale as a kind of pancetta.
Finally, having a lot of boiled and roasted cassava left over, I decided to mash it with the fat and juices of the cooked meat to see what that would do. This was the kind of thing Europeans did at the time – enriching staple porridges with dripping, animal fat, or oil – and we know from Exquemelin and Labat it was done with maize porridge. It worked. Initially, the mix still had the distinctive sour note of cassava, but this was quickly lost. The puree is quite firm, dry, and filling, and it supports strong flavours well.