First let me say that there are many types of “pan de coco” in the world. The fluffy, sweet and bread-like Honduran type is probably the most famous, but there are other versions in places like the Philippines, and many in the Caribbean itself. Trinidadian yeast-raised “coconut bake” is quite similar. Likewise Jamaican “coco bread”, though that’s also yeast-raised and sweeter, containing things like eggs, butter, and packaged yeast. Very different, in other words, from pan de coco de Samaná, which is a simple, savory, chemically raised bread. It’s not fussy or fancy like many of the others; more of a day-to-day staple than the sweet, light, cake-like breads that are traditionally the stuff of celebrations.
There are several stories about its origin. One of the more popular claims that pan de coco de Samaná was called “English” bread because it was brought by English migrant workers sometime in the mid-to-late 1800’s. That makes a certain amount of sense considering pan de coco de Samaná is chemically raised, and the English (particularly members of the English military) were very much into chemically raised breads, at least when they were far from home. Chemical leaveners made a handy alternative to yeast when on the road (or seas). They were fast, convenient, and never had to be fed like conventional bread starters.
However when you look at the history of the Samaná province, something else of interest crops up. Specifically, that this province was once a refuge for free black Americans. African-Americans began emigrating to Samaná as early as 1824, and when they came they brought some of their African-American culture with them. And that included chemically-raised bread.
For indeed pan de coco was once known by another name among the residents of Samaná: johnnycake. And as longtime Joe P. readers know, the johnnycake is an American — more specifically Native American — invention, perhaps the first chemically raised bread ever created, leavened with ashes, the antecedent of potash, baking soda and ultimately today’s baking powder. Strong evidence, then, that pan de coco de Samaná is in fact American in origin. For the Dominican Republic has never had a strong baking culture, much less a quick bread culture. More likely this “English” bread was simply brought by English speakers, and today is the specialty of a northern coastal port region, still famous for its African American cultural roots.