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John Rapsey—creator of hops bread and biscuit cake
Hops bread is a national staple and here is the origin. Brothers Horatio and John Alfred Rapsey left England to seek their fortunes. By 1845, the two were in Port-of-Spain, operating a tailor’s shop from a building on Edward St where John Alfred died in 1853 from yellow fever.
Horatio left tailoring and opened a bakery at 62 Queen St, later moving to 9 Frederick Street. He married an English woman who bore him three sons. Horatio Jr (Ned) took over the grocery and was known as an amateur magician which earned him a reputation as an obeah man. Thomas died young and John Alfred (born in the same year his namesake uncle died) inherited the bakery after his father, Horatio Snr died in 1892.
John Alfred is credited with using an old technique he observed among the French Creole kitchens of Trinidad which involved leavening a dough roll with an extract of the male hop flower which gave it unusual crust and size.
Originally, the loaves were baked wrapped in green banana leaves which resulted in the finished product being delivered with dried leaf still stuck to it. Thus, hops bread began to be commercially baked around 1893, with each loaf being sold at a penny a piece (day-old loaves being sold in front the bakery for half penny). Because of the price, hops bread was originally known as ‘penny loaves’ and were a blessing to the impoverished barrack-yard dwellers of the city.
Rapsey was also credited with either inventing or popularising the “biscuit cake” by taking crates of the unpalatable American hardtack biscuits, soaking them in milk and then sprinkling sugar before baking, thus producing another Trini classic. In 1893, he added a soft drink factory to the business. Not surprisingly, Rapsey became rich and in 1901 bought the entire Aranguez estate for $18,000 where he continued sugar cultivation and also raised excellent cattle.
He produced excellent cheese and milk which were sold from the bakery and was also delivered to consumers packed in ice in a horse-drawn van, and later, one of the earliest motor trucks in the island. Queso de Mano Cheese provided a welcome contrast to the heavily salted white Venezuelan product then swamping the market.
While the other cheeses did not need refrigeration and thus could stay on a shop counter for months, Queso de Mano with its low sodium content spoiled rapidly and thus was sold mainly in and around PoS.
John Alfred purchased the old home of the Zurcher family, Blarney, near to Maraval which was a magnificent house he renamed Ellerslie. John Alfred died in 1912 but his widow and children continued to run Aranguez estate, with emphasis on housing development rather than agriculture. The bakery was also closed in 1928 with the famous Queso de Mano cheese disappearing in 1929.
Today, the Rapseys still maintain an interest in Aranguez estate, although most of the lands have now been sold or leased, and the grand family home is now the site of Ellerslie Plaza.
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