It’s four o’clock in the morning and many residents of Crane Village, West Coast Demerara are still fast asleep.
Simone Peters is already hard at work though, gathering and mixing ingredients to create tasty treats that she will bake in a humble ‘box oven’ made of galvanised sheets and wood and powered by coals.
Soon, a delicious smell drifts lazily from Simone’s kitchen. Floating lightly on the early morning breeze, the inviting aroma wafts through Simone’s sleepy village, reminding her neighbours that one of their own has made a unique and delectable addition to Guyana’s cuisine.
Early-rising visitors to the village might recognise the distinctive smell of freshly-baked, crisp coconut-biscuits coming from Simone’s home early in the morning. And they’ll be intrigued by another mouth-watering smell that they won’t be able to identify – the subtle, tantalizing aroma of fresh coconut-cheese sticks.
Persons who have spent a little time in Guyana will know about coconut biscuits and cheese sticks, two of the most sought-after local snacks. Chances are they won’t know about coconut-cheese sticks, unless they’re part of a growing band of loyal customers drawn irresistibly to Simone Peters’ savoury snacks.
Simone makes exquisite coconut-biscuits, but her coconut-cheese sticks underscore her creativity and expertise in the kitchen. Tucked away in Crane village, this modest entrepreneur has quietly invented a brand-new tasty treat that is generating considerable buzz among connoisseurs of culinary art.
She has been at it for three years now and her small home-based business, Ann’s Bakery, is growing from strength to strength. In the past year, she has moved up from walking and selling to baking thousands of rustic, perfectly spiced coconut biscuits, as well as the beguiling coconut-cheese sticks under the brand name “Country Style”.
As her business grows, Simone attributes much of her success to hard work. She recalls growing up with her aunt and working hard helping her to prepare coconut biscuits for sale. Preparing snacks for sale was her aunt’s main source of income.
She didn’t know then, but the experience she gained helping her aunt would pay off big-time when she took up the trade herself.
Today, Simone is making a name for herself with her coconut products, and a key factor in her progress is her participation in several exhibitions. She believes this exposure has led to thousands of new orders for her coconut tidbits.
“When I step into a room, it doesn’t matter what’s the occasion. The first thing I am asked is, ‘Did you walk with coconut-biscuits?’” she says.
Her coconut biscuits are flat and oblong with a rough surface. They are made with flour, spices, butter, coconut (of course!), evaporated milk and sugar.
Simone says the mixture and prep-work are similar to the recipe for buns. “But at the end of the day, it is how you [develop the flavour] with the flour and the butter and the coconut.”
With the increase in demand, Simone has improved her packaging and labelling. New, colourful labels on her products read: “Made with love and coconut”.
Simone believes her business got a big push when she launched her coconut-cheese sticks at the UncappeD Marketplace Agro-Processors Exhibition in April this year and they got rave reviews. Now, people can’t get enough of them and some would order by pounds.
Describing how she had the idea to create coconut-cheese sticks, Simone says she thought it would be a great selling point to market a unique, exotic, savoury product alongside her regular coconut biscuits.
She mulled over a few ideas and finally settled on an experiment that required a half pound of cheese, grated coconut, mustard, pepper and butter. The result was a product firmer than a cheese straw with a far more interesting flavour and pleasant sensation on the tongue.
Her experiment was a spectacular success. From her first taste, Simone knew it would be a hit.
“When that was finished, you know I don’t eat cheese straw anymore,” Simone says with a chuckle.
“The cheese with the coconut combined brings a smooth taste to your mouth. The coconut of itself has a kind of sweetish taste, so when it blends with the cheese it brings a taste to your mouth that leaves you in kind of awe. When you are finished eating that, you still have the taste of the coconut in your mouth…” she explains.
She now has a rollicking production line that churns out thousands of coconut treats every day.
Many visiting Guyanese buy coconut-cheese sticks to take overseas. What’s more, they have become a popular choice as hors d’oeuvres at all sorts of functions.
The ingredient that poses the most problems to access is coconut. Simone depends on vendors to bring coconuts for her from the back dam. However, if she does not get enough to fulfil her orders, she has to buy them in Georgetown at a much higher cost.
Recalling her days learning her trade at her aunt’s house, she remembers everyone in the house waking up at about half past three in the mornings.
The yard and household were hives of activity. The yard had to be cleaned and water was fetched from miles away. Then came the preparation of biscuits, salaras and other baked products the family sold during the day. Coconuts had to be broken and the flesh scooped, washed and grated.
Everyone was expected to chip in.
Then, it was off to school.
She remembers the children looking forward to the moment when they could relax with the broken biscuits or salara ends and cups of bush tea.
“We found joy in that because at the end of the day, we still had… We were grateful at the end of the day…”
She muses, “I will always say I will never let my children work as hard as I did. And even a day like today, I am still working hard…”
“My goal is to leave legacy for my children…because of where I came from and the struggles I went through in life, even though my children have their own dreams I would want to leave something they can fall back on….” Simone says.
“I can see myself going there; it’s not as fast as I would like, but I know I would get there with time.”
Simone is making plans to reduce her workload. She has two employees who assist with the baking. However, she needs an industrial oven and a machine to grate coconuts in order to reduce the workload and build capacity.
Simone plans to get a mechanical grater to grate coconuts faster and in larger quantities.
If you have never tried Simone’s products, then you are in luck because she will be at the upcoming UncappeD Marketplace Agro-Processors Exhibition organised by the Guyana Manufacturing and Services Association at Leonora on July 28.
Describing her plans for the event, Simone says her booth will definitely feature her biscuits and coconut-cheese sticks in addition to sugar cake and pone as well as other common coconut-based snacks in Guyana.
So be on the lookout for Simone’s booth. You are in for a treat.