Tropical bread

Nadia de Pietramale’s cake may only have come second, but to me it was an absolute winner. A dark-hued slab of unadorned, solid-looking confectionery still warm from the oven, it lacked the theatrics of the glorious Peach and Macadamia Pie which won the second annual Mullumbimby Farmers Market Bake-off – until you took a mouthful.

Owner of ‘Milk and Honey’ Chris Pellen and I tried, tested and tasted most of a dizzying spread of cakes, tarts, pies, desserts, biscuits, salads and savouries which locals had concocted in their homes then brought in to the showgrounds. Ingredients had to be sourced from the farmers market previously, and apart from a preponderance of macadamia-starring creations, the diversity was as broad as the produce available in the region.

Brazilian Nadia had made a cassava cake, using her mother’s recipe. It was startlingly few in ingredients and simple in execution, and yet this was the cake I actually returned to for, I am ashamed to say, third helpings. Dense, moist, ineffably spicy, it was everything I ever want a cake to be. And cassava – what in God’s name was cassava really anyway?

Stallholder John Piccone grows and sells this root crop among a plethora of rare tropical fruits and nuts on his 130 acres at Tyagarah. Before I went there to visit him he was already enthusing about its culinary uses. He steams, boils and bakes it as he would a potato; much later he very nearly sabotaged my diet by offering me some of what we decided he should call Sweet Cassava Rosti. But that came later.

Cassava, sometimes called yucca or manioc, is native to South America, flourishes in tropical and subtropical areas and is the third-largest source of food carbohydrates in the world.

Some describe it as the ‘bread of the tropics’. From it comes tapioca, made from the residue of the root after its poisonous prussic acid has been pressed out. It appears to be mostly used in sweet dishes, and to be sure many Asian as well as South American countries have their own (all rather similar) versions of cassava cake. The cassava is generally grated then combined with sugar, coconut or coconut milk, some form of fat and flavourings, pressed into a cake form then baked. Nadia was gracious enough to share her mother’s recipe which, she told me, was ‘all about sustainable’.

When she was a child growing up on a farm about 1200 kilometres from San Paolo, she would accompany her father to a neighbour’s sugarcane farm in order to make rapadura, a byproduct of sugarcane juice, and then exchange it for ‘the leg of a cow’. This would
be brought home for her mother to add to the backyard cassava grated, the homemade butter and homemade cheese (like a hard ricotta, said Nadia), cow milk and eggs – ‘all the ingredients you can get at the farm’.

Nadia, who has been in Australia since 1995, adapted the recipe a little – her own cassava was still growing so was not ready; she used a mixture of cheeses, neither homemade – but yielded nonetheless this most extraordinary cake. The rapadura sugar she sourced from the market and I suspect it was this which endowed the cake with its slightly spicy, faintly caramely flavour.

Something else Nadia said remained with me. Cassava is so resistant to extremes of weather, tolerating long winter droughts and summer rains and thriving on the poorest soils, that you can always rely on it as a food source. To think of that much possible pleasure so freely accessible in your own backyard!

About victoria

Author of the gastro-memoir 'Amore&Amaretti: A Tale of Love an Food in Tuscany', I am a Byron Shire-based food and travel writer, food columnist, cooking teacher, recipe editor and chef. Born in Canberra, ACT, I have a BA in languages although am only really passionate about the Italian one, in which I am fluent, having spent four years in Tuscany in my late twenties, and returning reasonably frequently ever since. Despite that, my partner of many years, a wonderful artist, clothes designer and aged carer, is half-Greek!
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