Friday, February 23, 2018

Nothing half-baked

This week, Real Woman Real Stories flies over to Tobago, not for the tail end of Tobago Jazz festival, but to sample a slice of Olga Jack's signature dirt-oven bread baked in the scenic town of Castara.


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Photos by Micheal Bruce

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Ms Olga is a real professional. That was the first impression I got of the bread-maker extraordinaire from Castara, Tobago.

"My name is not Ooo-lga, its Olga," she informed me when we met for the interview at her bread shed overlooking Castara Bay. She is old school and believes in traditional values. "I does always tell people, if I doing something I doing it wholeheartedly; I doh believe in doing it halfway. Especially if it is for children, nah I doh believe in halfway nothing!"

The mother of four boys is a popular face not only in Tobago but in Trinidad and the world. Her old time method of making bread in a dirt oven is treasured and the sweet hand taste of her finished product is sought after by many tourists, locals and even her fellow villagers.

"Somebody come and take a picture of bread and I hear it was on a papers in America," she said. Her bread is superb in quality and consistency because Ms Olga is also very meticulous about her skill. "I making bread with my mother and grandmother since I was 15. My parents used to make bread to sell and I learn from them. When I was younger the villagers, me and the school principal and PTA at Castara Government School put up and build this dirt oven (in the stall) to make bread. This project still alive up to this day after 17 years but not everybody who started with the project alive. Ms Voleen Bob Lewis was the principal when the project just start and she was the one who buy the first set of ingredients for the bread," she stated.

The strong woman of business then referred to a foundation stone where Lewis' name was elegantly engraved to commemorate her early contribution. "Some of the people who started making the bread done dead and gone. I am one of the few ones still alive," she avowed, adjusting her white cap with the Trinidad and Tobago flag over her red head tie.

Her shed near the scenic Castara beachfront is a simple galvanised structure. The neat establishment is intriguing though and has a mysterious feel to it, when you see the peculiar dirt oven behind the counter that is. Ms Olga's stall is certainly not your ordinary bread shop; it's much more. She was eager to highlight the exclusivity of her tasty bread rolls.

"Making bread in dirt oven is not simple. Is many different processes you have to go through to get the special flavour."

"Special flavour?" I asked, curious about the niche product.

"Come let me show you," she said, and with that her crafty hands got to work.

"First you have to knead your dough. For the dough you add your flour, butter, a little bit of sugar, salt, lard and yeast. Oh yes, and doh forget the Carnation milk, that real important. If you making pumpkin bread you grate the pumpkin and add it to the dough but I does scald the pumpkin, blend it up and the strain it to get the smoothness, you know. If is whole wheat, you add whole wheat. This one plain so we doh have to add anything."

Ms Olga then took up some baliser leaves and began washing them. "You have to wash the balisier leaves, and then dry them. You see like those doughs there was kneaded and left to lie and then kneaded again. So now yuh have to put a balisier on top and below. The balisier leaf gives the nice sweet flavour to the bread. Then you sweep the oven with black-sage bush. After that you have to light the oven with branches and when the fire die down the mud retains the heat so then you could put in your dough in the balisier and start the baking," she advised.

What I saw afterwards was simply amazing. To place the dough in the oven, she didn't use words to instruct her two assistants working in the shed; instead she used signs to guide them through the process that she just taught me. Photographer Micheal Bruce and I remained silent as well as if we were witnessing an old ritual.

Within a few minutes, the dough was placed in the oven and the baking process was on the way.

"Why the signs?" I inquired.

"Ha! Ha! Ha! That's just my way of doing things," she laughed.

Her laughter gave me the cue to quiz her on her age but she chuckled even more at the question, her laugh even sweeter than her signature bread.

"How old I looking like? I just helping out here; I believe in teaching the younger ones. People does ask me why I still working and I tell them I love making bread. That is my life after my boy children. This bread I making here I does sell it to a lot of customers. The money from it I pay my workers, take back some for materials and the rest I give back to the Castara Government School to give Christmas treat and buy sports equipment for the children. I just love helping the children," Ms Olga declared.

Okay, so back to my original question: how old was she?

"Seventy, loving, seventy," she said smiling.

"My advice to young people like you is to work hard and become self-employed because the government can't employ everybody. Don't study what Tom or Dick have because you doh know what they do to get it. Put God first and you will get what you want," she counselled.

In years to come she intends to continue making the best bread on the island. She has one wish for her business though and that is to get some benches erected at her stall for curious onlookers who are intrigued as Michael and I by her culinary skills and the art of dirt-oven baking.

"I want benches and couple other things to make the stall more people-friendly," she concluded.

By the end of the interview I was convinced of many things. Ms Olga is a real professional, a real icon in Trinidad and Tobago and a real woman.