In an age when real homemade bread baked in an outdoor brick oven is as rare as a trace metal, Valerie Rolle Tonny is reviving the tradition, treating hundreds of visitors every week to the edible treasure.
Tonny is the Bread Lady of Sandals Emerald Bay, Exuma. She’s a one-woman tourism ambassador who fed a family of 13 when she was young, following in her dad’s footsteps.
“I never knew how he could make bread that tasted so good, but I was going to stay by his side until I learned,” she said. And did she learn. With a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye, Tonny whips up loaf after loaf, bun after bun, twist and tart after twist and tart of the sweetest breads this side of heaven, each with a distinct Bahamian taste – coconut, guava, dilly, potato, banana, pumpkin. There’s just about nothing she hasn’t tried and no day she doesn’t want to create something guests will devour.
She’s also a mother of four, grandmother of 12, great-grandmother of eight, still an athlete, a softball player, coach of the volleyball team in Nassau in the last Bahamas Games, and she’s participating in the celebrations leading up to the 50th anniversary of independence.
Tonny’s energy puts those Eveready bunnies to the test.
But most of all, she is the sweetness, the smile and the genuine warmth behind that bread that draws guests at the Sandals resort to line up on the days they know she is firing up the brick oven halfway between the beach and pool. They inhale the aroma as steam escapes from the oven and the loaf or twist of bread begins to rise.
“The guests love it and I bake for them even when it’s raining. Mr. Mutton (General Manager Jeremy Mutton) will tell me, ‘Ms. Valerie, don’t you go out there now, I don’t want you getting wet.’ But I just tell him I’m going because I love what I do. I tell him the rain’s going to let up by the time I am ready to serve, and I love seeing the smiles on my guests’ faces when I hand them the warm loaf. I do corn bread, guava, coconut, dilly, whatever is in season, and they tell me, ‘Ms. Valerie, this is the best bread I ever tasted in my life.’”
Tonny can’t remember a time she did not feel most at home in the kitchen. She left school at 14 to help out on the family farm in Exuma but every meal she was right there back from the field into the kitchen to help cook and serve and when it seemed there was just not enough food to go around for her parents, siblings, a sister who moved in with her children, young Valerie would take a little piece from each portion until she had enough to fill that thirteenth plate. She grew the corn, picked it, shucked the cob and ground it on a mill right in the kitchen for grits and corn bread. Farm to table wasn’t a fad or a novelty. For Exumians like Tonny and other Family Islanders, it was just the way things were. It was what you did and how you ate. She once served 300 on the farm.
Born a Rolle, she’s been married now for 55 years and though she attempted to retire in 2016 to look after her husband, a mason who was injured in a truck accident that has severely limited his mobility, it wasn’t long before she was itching to work again. Sandals was happy to have her back at the brick oven they built for her in 2012 and in the pantry where she rules.
“I meet people from all walks of life and from all over the world,” says Tonny, one of hundreds of Bahamian staff members at the sprawling resort and one of a handful of Sandals superstars. “Baking the bread is what I love. It’s a piece of cake.