There is nothing quite like the smell of freshly-baked bread. It doesn’t matter what you grew up eating as a kid – chapatis and sabzi, pao and sorpotel, steak and mashed potatoes or sambar and rice. Bread that’s just out of the oven demands, even if it’s for just a few seconds, that you banish all other thoughts from your mind and inhale slowly and deeply. If there’s one neighbourhood in the city that’s likely to stop you in your tracks and do just that, it’s Bandra.
There’s bread around every corner here. From tiny bakers that operate from home on crowded Waroda and Chapel Road to larger establishments like Andora’s, Candy’s, American Express, A-1 and Hersch & Co, Bandra probably sells more bread than any other neighbourhood in the city. This may have something to do with the fact that many of the suburb’s early migrants were from Goa, according to historian Teresa Albuquerque. When they moved to Bombay in the 1920s, Bandra – then on the outer fringes of the city – was one of the neighbourhoods where they settled. To earn their daily bread, they put to use one of the only skills they had, making pao – something they earnt from the Portuguese, who ruled their home territory. Pao is, in fact, a Portuguese word.
At that time, there was no electric equipment involved in the process. The “oven” was one room of the family house. It was essentially a brick box with vents on top and a small opening through which the pao was put in and taken out. The heat came from the red-hot coals that lined the sides of the oven and the vents released the smoke through a chimney. This is how the 61-year-old English Bakery on Waroda Road still makes bread. They don’t make any loaves, croissants or Danish – just 2,000 hunks of pao baked during a morning and evening shift. The bread-making happens in two rooms on the ground floor of the family home: in one, the dough is made and proofed – that’s the process of the dough rising – and the other is where the baking happens.
“It gets very hot in the summer,” said Ignatious Carvalho who started the bakery in 1949. “But this is our business so there’s nothing I can do about it.” The Carvalhos are among the few Goan bakers in the area who stubbornly continues with their family business. Many others like Jude and Diaz bakery, both a stone’s throw away, have shut shop because of disappearing margins, legal issues or because the younger generation isn’t interested in continuing the tradition. “There was a law passed some time back banning bakeries in residential areas,” he explained. “Too much smoke.” They can stay as long as they don’t redevelop the house in any way. If they do then it becomes a new establishment.
A few minutes away on bustling Hill Road is the American Express Bakery. Run by Emil and Yvan Carvalho with daddy Ross – they aren’t related to the English Bakery family – this Bandra store has been “kneading the needs” of their customers for almost a century. They’ve always lived in Bandra but their bread-making factory – one of the oldest in the city– is in Byculla. The grey two-storey building on Clare Road is over 70 years old but by no means technologically outdated. Unlike in the case of English Bakery, all of the kneading, making and slicing is done by machines. “We only moved to Byculla in the 1930s,” said Emil Carvalho. “We used to bake out of an older factory somewhere near Grant Road before.” None of the surviving Carvalhos know when American Express baked its first loaf. There are framed advertisements at the Bandra and Byculla branches that go back as far as 1922 (12 annas for a dozen hot-cross buns and R1 for a pound of plum cake), but the exact year of its birth is a bit hazy.
Today, a loaf of their white sandwich bread costs R18. It’s among the most affordable quality bread in Mumbai. American Express bakes at least 3,700 loaves every single day. “We use about 900kgs to one tonne of flour daily,” Emil Carvalho said. “That’s not including the flour used for brown bread and pastries.”
The English Bakery makes only pao and brun. At most other Bandra bakeries, the decisions about what bread to buy are far more complicated. American Express has two kinds of white bread (tin loaf and sandwich) as well as a list of brown, whole wheat and multigrain versions. Emil Carvalho says it’s these swanky sounding, rustic-looking breads that are becoming increasingly popular. “For every ten loaves of sandwich bread, we sell 18 loaves of whole wheat or brown bread,” he said. “Everybody’s caught the health bug.”
At Theobroma’s Bandra outlet, they don’t even make loaves of white bread anymore. “We only use refined flour when we make the herbed focaccia or buns for the chicken-mayo rolls,” said owner Kainaz Messman. “It’s all about the multigrain and whole wheat now.”
Here’s the thing about whole wheat bread though: it’s almost never 100 per cent whole wheat. In most cases, there’s some amount of refined flour added to the mix. The dough needs the gluten in the maida to proof and rise, which is necessary to make light fluffy bread. A wholly whole-wheat loaf is a lot denser and has a thicker crust and crumb. It’s great eaten fresh out of the oven with a sliver of butter but it hardens over time. In most cases, bakers use a 70:30 ratio for brown and mixed-grain breads; that’s 70 per cent mixed grains and seeds to 30 per cent refined flour. Then there’s the colour. A whole wheat loaf isn’t likely to be dark brown unless the dough has some amount of millet or nachni added to it. “Think of a chapati,” explained Emil Carvalho. “It’s not dark brown, so why should your bread be?” What a lot of bread-makers do to enhance the “brownness” of their bread is add malt to the dough mix. In addition to a richer colour, the malt adds a slightly clingy chewiness. Top the loaf with some toasted seeds and oats and it’ll sell out by noon.
Both Emil Carvalho and Messman say they stay away from the malt but, like an increasing number of Bandra’s bakers, are finding that today’s loaves do require some amount of right grain thinking. In addition to jowar, oats and nachni, Theo’s multigrain bread also has toasted watermelon, sesame and papaya seeds to boost fibre levels. American Express does a lovely date and walnut multi-grain. It’s exactly this kind of rustic-looking, high-fibre loaf that an increasing number of customers are asking for. In response, not just bakeries but speciality stores (Sante’s and Nature’s Basket) and up-market department stores (Neelam and Patel stores) are lining their shelves with breads.
American Express Bakery stocks over ten types of bread but Emil Carvalho’s favourite remains those simple 8mm-thick slices of white sandwich bread. “I’m not a brown boy,” he said. Messman, prefers the textured sourdough ciabatta while English Bakery’s Carvalho starts and ends his day with the crispy brun. “Why eat mass-produced stuff when you can get really good bread just around every corner?” Emil Carvalho asks. “It costs just as much; maybe a few bucks more because small bakers don’t bake in such large numbers. But the difference is huge.” It’s also a difference that more customers are becoming conscious of. So the next time you get a sniff of that heavenly aroma, don’t just inhale and sigh, go ahead and buy some bread. The proof is in the loaf.