Monday, 12 November 2012

The Paste-Beater of Lava

1886.1.1164 Breadfruit pounder

This is Forster 28, 1886.1.1164, described in the Catalogue of Curiosities as 'the paste-beater of lava'.  Made of basalt, this heavy pounder, or penu, was used to grind cooked breadfruit into a paste.   Breadfruit is the large starchy fruit from a type of mulberry tree.  The starchy fruit, when baked, is said to taste like fresh bread or potato.

Breadfruit, attributed to Sydney Parkinson, from the National Library of Australia

Forster writes that 'we found the Tahitian method of dressing breadfruit and other victuals, with heated stones under ground, infinitely superior to our usual way of boiling them; in the former all the juices remained, and were concentrated by the heat; but in the latter, the fruit imbibed many watery particles, and lost a great deal of its fine flavour and mealiness.'

Cooked breadfruit could be ground to a paste with the penu, in a large wooden trough.  This produced popoi, a sweetish paste.  Sometimes other fruit, such as coconut, was added, to make poe, a 'custard'.

Because breadfruits ripened only at certain times of the year, a method was developed to store the fruit.  Joseph Banks described the process of making fermented breadfruit paste, mahi, in 'The Voyage of the Endeavour 1768-1771'

'As I have mentioned sour paste, I will proceed to describe what it is.  Bread-fruit, by what I can find, remains in season during only nine or ten of their thirteen months, so that a reserve of food must be made…the fruit is gathered when just upon the pint of ripening, and laid in heaps, where it undergoes a fermentation, and becomes disagreeably sweet.  The core is then taken out, which is easily done…and the rest of the fruit thrown into a hole dug for the purpose, generally in their houses.  The sides and bottom of this hole are neatly lined with grass, the whole is covered with leaves, and heavy stones laid upon them.  Here it undergoes a second fermentation and becomes sourish, in which condition it will keep, as they tell me, many months.  Custom has, I suppose, made this agreeable to their palates, though we disliked it extremely; we seldom saw them make a meal without some of it in some shape or form.'