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Ode to the Bread Van*, and the goodies therein

I tasted something in Guyana last week which brought back childhood memories of Trinidad. It was unexpected – they called it “bun” or “coconut bun” and I cannot remember if I’d seen it before in a bakery in Guyana. I may have, but then “bun” as a small, unprepossessing yellowish thing would have taken me back to the “bun” of Trinidad – which is that round yellowy yeast dough bun, which at its best is soft and fragrant with spices and a nicely sugar-glazed top, but at its worst (and far to often at that) is dry and flavourles with dubious mixed peel thrown in for good measure! And with that memory in mind I probably passed over anything that might have been a bun.

But this bun was different. It was yellowish yes, but smaller and didn’t have the characteristic smooth roundness of a yeast-leavened dough. I had no expectations of it other than I was a little peckish and wanted something to go with my cup of tea. And with my first bite, I was transported. It tasted like biscuit cake! Biscuit cake in GUYANA! It looked nothing like the round, pale inch-thick disks, big as your hand and lightly covered with white specks of granulated sugar, which I know to be biscuit cake. But the flavour was there. I couldn’t believe my sister had never told me I could get this in Guyana.

Now, I love biscuit cake. It was always my requested item when we did a bakery stop during my childhood, and because it was usually the cheapest thing in the bakery, I could get 2, or biscuit cake plus half a currants roll. I have tried looking for a recipe online, but it doesn’t seem to be one of the things anyone has posted. If anyone has a recipe, let me know (and Mom, if it turns out you have a recipe I will forgive you if it’s in my inbox before you comment 😉 ). [I did a little googling and came across this recipe for Trini Milk Cake – is this it?]

Biscuit cake is so named, possibly because it is shaped like a big biscuit (American terminology=cookie). While it may appear firm and hard on the outside, it should have a softness to the bite with a milky mild sweetness, and appears almost unleavened? Of course those dryness-czars have attacked this delicacy as well and many bakeries had versions that were dry and tough and unappealing unless dunked in tea. I think my parents indulged the biscuit cake requests, not simply because of the price (30 years ago they might have been 50 cents and then later $1 – any idea how much it is now?) but also the fact that it wasn’t in fact sugar-laden. While most bakeries in Trinidad would have had this item, I cannot remember the last time I saw it. Of course it’s better to ask someone who lives in Trinidad…or in the case of Trinfood someone who lives in London but knows her stuff – she advised that Chee Mooke’s sells them and Bread Basket in St Ann’s has a good one. I remember my best was in a bakery we used to stop by on our way up to Santa Cruz – was it St Mary’s? – it had the best pastries.

Since I had that flashback I have been going further down memory lane, remembering all the associations with bakeries and buying pastries such as biscuit cake. [Photos in this later post]Of course, there were the times when during the week, on our way home from school we’d stop at the bakery to pick up hot hops (how many bakeries have flashing lights “Hot Hops Available Now”?) – one quart for home, half quart for the family of six to devour on the way home. And if we were due for a treat, Mom would bring back some pastries to the car for us.

But the best bakery times took place, not at the bakery, but with the bread vans. I’ve seen bread vans in Barbados – as students, we were introduced to Bajan specialties from a van that stopped at our student apartment. I cannot recall what they were called though. A bread van is a small minibus vehicle,** where instead of seats, the main cavity of the vehicle was stacked with shelves and trays carrying fresh bakery goodies. The vans belong or work for particular bakeries and they would drive through our village every afternoon selling their wares, getting customers who would otherwise not have transport to get into the town or main road to get to the bakery. Unlike ice cream vans, which play stretched out taped music through loudspeakers, or the fish vans which call out their goods on mikes (“Caaaaareeet! Fresh Caaaaaareeet! Fry Dry! CroCro! Red Fish Caaaaaareeeeeeet!”), bread vans generally announce themselves with quick tooting of the horn every few metres. What more do you need when you’re selling hot and fresh baked goods?

The best time to buy from the bread van was on the weekend. Everyone was home and hearing the horn from the round the corner was like a signal to put on the kettle. Pastries in the afternoon from the bread van meant we would stop whatever we were doing, and all sit down around the table and have tea! I wasn’t a fan of tea itself then, but the milk and sugar that went into it :-) But the memory of those weekend afternoons, with the fat round brown teapot (sadly broken for some years now) filled to the brim with hot tea, and our choice of delicacies from the van laid out on the table, are part of the golden years.

As a scaredy-cat child it was torture, however, to be given the assignment to stop the bread van, although the promise of the purchases made that chore more successful than waiting for the vegetable or fish van! I lived in fear of embarrassment or doing the wrong thing and the thought that I might not wave the right way, and the van driver would sense my fear, know I was somehow an inadequate village child and sneer; rushing past me on the little village road, leaving me with my arm awkwardly waving at nothing, with all the neighbours seeing my failure (yeah, I know… had/have issues…). However, for the bread van I would brave it. I could even muster up the courage to make the purchases myself. After all I knew full well the contents of the bread van and could make an informed selection –

Jam tarts, flaky layered pastry, twisted into a big triangle, with bright red jam of unknown (to me) origins, warm so that the jam oozed out when you bit into it, with the top of the pastry glistening with its light layer of crystallized sugar. The pastry would be so good, you’d eat the dry ends even if they didn’t have a speck of jam! Jam tarts were a favourite of sister-the-elder and my father. I liked them well enough, but I didn’t usually request them.

Currants roll – this is a Trini classic – similar flaky pastry as the jam tart, but rolled out and sprinkled with currants and sugar and rolled up, baked and sliced diagonally creating that recognisable shape with layers of pastry and currants rolled around inside. I don’t have photos and I have never made it myself, but to get an idea, look at these photos from my Flickr friend Reya. Currants rolls are I think my father’s favourite. Wherever we go someone would say “get a currants roll for your father!”. Of course he wouldn’t turn down a good jam tart either. And since he doesn’t overindulge, he’d have half of each, leaving his half of a currants roll to be snatched up by his children at the first opportunity. Probably why he, the ever-thrifty, would buy a couple extra so we’d leave his alone.

I remember in the late 80s/90s when there were import restrictions and we couldn’t get currants in T&T. So people made currants roll with raisins, bad enough since they resemble raisins but have a tang and moistness that do not match the currants! Worse yet was when they used those bright coloured pieces of what used to be part of a fruit, which the TriniGourmet once aptly named the “rubiks cube bits” :-) Currants roll should have currants. We even had a currants roll lady in the village (have I mentioned the Dahi Lady and the Channa Lady?) who would make currants roll for every event in the mosque and for Eid. Of course I knew her name, but I think she’d be pleased we remember her for the pastry only she made in the village.

Madeleines are not the cakes you’re probably thinking of. The madeleine found in Trini bakeries is a small light cupcake, completely covered in a red jamlike substance (see jam tart above) and then rolled in grated coconut. Absolutely lovely. Very sweet outside, light and fluffy inside and the little added texture of the coconut. I would look out for that and hated the vans that didn’t bring it and had bellyful cake instead (I do not understand the allure of this).

Rock Cake/Bun – This is like a drop bun, with coconut flavour, and the “rock” really refers to the rough hard exterior – the inside should still be soft. It’s scone like, not rolled out smooth, but dropped onto the baking sheet, so it looks like a rock I suppose. I used to eat all around the outsides before the middle – the hard outsides were my favourite part. And rock cake shouldn’t have things in it as far as I am concerned, but people will always find a way to add their raisins and bright coloured things…

Of course bread vans would also have sweetbread and regular cakes. Maybe some savoury stuff. I don’t really remember. Trinifood had posted about some of these traditional sweets a few years ago. Since I am not often in the homeland to stop a bread van or take a poll of the bakeries, I’d love to hear from you about these faves of mine. Recipes welcome. Recommendations as to good traditional bakeries appreciated!

And now that I am pausing my reminiscing and that you (hopefully) have read all the way down here without a single photo to break the prose, let’s go have some tea. And if you’re not in a hotel, look out for the bread van for me!

UPDATE (24 March 2010): added links to TriniGourmet’s recipes for the Trini yellow bun and Coconut Drop where mentioned above.

*I know…this isn’t really an Ode. There’s no lyric poetry here…maybe some other time!

**The minibuses that ARE minibuses are called bread van maxis if they’re this small size. Maxi-taxi being the Trini (and Turkish) minibus

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19 Comments so far (Add 1 more)

  1. Nice post and the biscuit cake recipe is the same as the trini milk cake recipe…but the bakeries usually use less milk, it is usually more water than milk…….sorry about not telling you about the recipe before……lol

    1. trinimom on March 22nd, 2010 at 9:08 am
  2. This is a truly good post Chennette, maashaallaah. You really ignited to serious childhood nostalgia by talking about rock cake (drop) and biscuit cake as it has been years since i had one of those; i am not even sure if they still sell them!

    2. Umar on March 22nd, 2010 at 10:39 am
  3. assalamu ‘alaikum

    @ Mom – so, we could try this on the weekend then? :-)

    @ Umar – shukran – it’s good to share the nostalgia. Now I want to go hunt down some of these things and take PICTURES!

    3. Chennette on March 22nd, 2010 at 3:37 pm
  4. Yes of course we are going to try them….but Edwards still make Biscuit Cake and all the others…..we could also make coconut rock cake or drops as we have shredded coconut in the freezer…..

    4. trinimom on March 22nd, 2010 at 6:07 pm
  5. I often hesitated to purchase items from the bread van when it came tooting along because the items tasted faintly of carbon monoxide.. I’ll blame the fact that the van had to climb our hills, so I often for-went bread van items!

    I did however look forward to the ad hoc visits of the ice-cream truck on a Sunday evening… the lilting jingle of the van’s song preceded raiding piggy banks and shouts to STOP!! Nothing was as focussed on a Sunday evening than ones attention on a melty ice-cream cone from the ice-cream van!

    5. Tamarind Ball on March 23rd, 2010 at 8:44 pm
  6. the brother was one of those children for whom the ice cream people knew they could stop without being hailed out!
    I remember these people from a neighbouring village who came around in a station wagon with home made ice cream and we always bought from them!

    6. Chennette on March 23rd, 2010 at 9:04 pm
  7. I think I know Trinidad biscuit cake and I think people also call it ‘belly full.” I haven’t seen biscuit cake around my part of the country for years. It was good but only when fresh – but all bakery stuff was fresh up to a few years ago. The combination was a “belly full” and a solo; preferably a cream soda. The only bread van I remember was Pips originating from Curepe and selling in St. Augustine and St. Joseph. Unfortunately their stuff was not the stuff fond childhood memories should be made of.

    For me, my oven dreams from childhood had current rolls, and yes, flaky jam tarts but also coconut turnovers and coconut drops. On the bright side, Kiss Cake will be the childhood memories for the children of today and the Kiss Van their bread van 😉

    7. aka_lol on March 24th, 2010 at 7:23 am
  8. ah! coconut turnovers, with soft bun dough wrapped around the spiced coconut filling! I had this in mind, but the length of the post probably made me forget to include it. In Guyana they have solara, which is rolled like a currants roll, but with a yeast dough, and bright red coconut filling. I miss Trini turnovers.

    8. Chennette on March 24th, 2010 at 8:55 am
  9. Turnovers are the bread and butter of some bakeries now 😉

    9. aka_lol on March 25th, 2010 at 12:15 pm
  10. Oh no “Bellyfull Cake is not and never was Biscuit Cake from where I grew up(San Juan) and when my children were growing up(California).
    In the good old days, it was rumoured that Bellyfull Cake was made from all the stale cakes of the day before and mixed with a nice syrup and baked and then coated with the syrup as well , so it was always brown or dark brown with a kind of floury dry fruit cake consistency, the added sugar syrup was used to give it its moisture and some times some minced raisins were thrown in for good measure or perhaps a touch of green and red colouring………lol
    Biscuit cake on the other hand was shaped like a large biscuit and made from flour , watered down milk , sugar, butter or margarine, baking powder or baking soda and rolled in sugar, more like a cookie crumble kind of a dough….Enjoy…..

    10. trinimom on March 26th, 2010 at 12:27 pm
  11. I have never tasted a few of these things and have no memories of a bread van:-( I do love me my currants roll though. I would love to see a recipe for biscuit cake so that I can give it a try.

    11. Wizzythestick on March 26th, 2010 at 5:20 pm
  12. Mom says that link I found seems to be it, so I am going to try it this weekend while in Trinidad. Also going to BUY some stuff for photos tomorrow.

    12. Chennette on March 26th, 2010 at 10:01 pm
  13. wow
    you mean you had the bread van/inadequate village child fear too???

    13. Lilandra on April 5th, 2010 at 2:09 am
  14. Um… bread basket doesn’t have biscuit cake (i checked) and hasn’t in years apparently! :( Still working on that posted recipe, bit of trial and error cos I don’t know it personally and the celtnet recipe I think is more than a bit off. Jason has had it tons growing up like you so he’s been guiding my results. Think I’m almost there :)

    17. The Trinigourmet on October 15th, 2010 at 7:15 pm
  15. I was supposed to do a post on the celtnet recipe because we tried it and it has WAY too much butter and milk. We think the flavour is right but the proportions are SO wrong. It was like a liquid cake batter! Waiting on the photos from Lilandra to post on it, but should have updated!

    18. Chennette on October 15th, 2010 at 10:52 pm
  16. Lucky bakery in Trinidad always has biscuit cake and I make sure to go there on every trip home and I usu buy 3 just for me :)

    20. petra on January 1st, 2012 at 9:47 pm
  17. in Naparima Girls cookbook, they have something called “baking powder biscuit” which I think might be a recipe for biscuit cake – I will try and let you know if it tastes the same

    21. petra on January 1st, 2012 at 9:50 pm
  18. Hi Petra…thanks for visiting. I think the Naps baking powder biscuit is more likely an American-style biscuit or plain scone rather than the biscuit cake but let me know when you try it.

    22. Chennette on January 1st, 2012 at 11:54 pm
  19. I’m enjoying this post.It has brought back so many memories.
    A bellyful and a glass of iced mauby was an afternoon treat. Biscuit cake and bellyful are two different pastries . I still stop at StMarys
    In San Juan for sweetbread to bring back to the US. I can’t remember Bread Vans when I was growing up but now I see them when I go back for visits .My mom made coconut turnovers sponge cakes and pone and sold them to a “parlour”.what memories.Thank You

    24. Lynette on January 28th, 2017 at 1:40 am

5 Trackbacks

  1. […] who is my dearest and oldest foodie friendship, took the conversation to her blog with the post “Ode To The Bread Van”. The bread van of yore doesn’t seem commonplace anymore, and is something that I myself have […]

  2. […] may recall that in my recent post, Ode to the Bread Van, I rambled on, reminiscing about all the goodies that were to be had from Trini bakeries and bread […]

  3. […] There are certain foods you cannot easily find photos of – I couldn’t illustrate my Bread Van post last month because there are no photos of biscuit cake, jam tart, currants roll etc freely available – […]

  4. […] a fluffy on the inside, shattering-crust on the outside, ubiquitous roll that is a staple of Trini bakeries. A few weeks ago I came across a Tumblr post from Trini Like Salt, expressing his love for Hops and […]

  5. […] I resorted to online searching.  That is when I came across “Chennette‘s” post that discussed long time pastries.  She had a link that carried you to a recipe for Trinidad Milk […]

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