Making quality products in limited quantities: How class bakeries keep Christmas cheer alive
The recipes of core products here are handed down over to the next generation.
Faizan’s family runs the Albert Bakery at Mosque Road, Bengaluru, which was started in 1921 by his great-grandfather Mohammed Suleman. Though the business is 100 years old, Faizan, a hotel management graduate, does not see any reason to revamp its functioning. He is not keen on expanding the family baking business, which he runs with his father Nawab Jan. Of course, not every hotel management graduate steps into an over 100-year-old family business that provides gastronomic glee in the shape of baked goodies to people from various cross-sections, communities and social and economic groups. “While my management background certainly helps me in understand the business better, I find our business model of using fresh ingredients and making and selling baked products on the same day very fulfilling. I am not looking at changing it,” says Faizan.
He has, however, expanded services to deliver via Dunzo and Zomato. He also visits other bakeries in the city to check out the competition. “I also visit the market regularly to find fresh ingredients.” The basic business ethics of Albert Bakery, he says, have stood the test of time ever since his great-grandfather first started baking bread, biscuits and buns. Suleman used to carry these on his bicycle and make the rounds of the big bungalows in the city, many of which were owned by Britishers. “We still believe in keeping our prices modest so that people from different social and economic sections can afford our products,” adds Faizan.
Albert Bakery is among the niche group of bakeries across the country that was founded by people practically in their kitchens. But these places have no dearth of patrons. In fact, some regular customers are from families that have been frequenting these places for generations.
Another unique factor of these establishments is that they make quality products in limited quantities that are mostly sold out by the end of the day. Their product list is small but these bakeries have not shied away from innovating and creating new delicacies. But their core products are traditional and the recipes have been handed down over the generations. Most scions of the founding families are united in their belief that getting venture capital money to build on the legacy of their establishments might lead to a fall in quality. Christmas still brings big business for these bakeries, most of which were founded during the pre-independence era.
Albert, for instance, is known for its non-alcoholic plum cake during Christmas. Other seasonal favourites are hot cross buns, marzipan and chocolate-coated eggs — an Easter speciality. Faizan’s father is credited with adding the savoury mutton brain puff to the menu during Ramzan. The spicy filling baked in puff pastry dough became so popular that it has been permanently added to the weekend menu at Albert.
The festive cheer also is palpable at Nahoum & Sons in Kolkata. Honey light plum cakes and chocolate lava cakes are flying off the shelves, says Isaac Nahoum, who runs the establishment. But his personal favourite is the X-Mas special cake that is specially baked for the occasion. Sales during the season go up by 30%, says Jagadish Halder, who has been the manager at Nahoum’s for over four decades.
Set up in 1916, Nahoum & Sons has become synonymous with Christmas in Kolkata. Isaac took over the reins of the business after his brother David died in 2013. Their grandfather Nahoum Israel Mordecai, a Baghdadi Jew, had started the bakery in Kolkata’s New Market.
The store still retains an old-world charm, with old wooden and glass shelves and a cash till which is about 100 years old. “I’m really 110 but tell my customers that I’m just 100 – and that’s as old as our plum cake recipes,” jokes Isaac Nahoum, speaking to ET Magazine on phone. The shop is packed to the gills with customers. Extra batches of plum cakes are being made in the kitchen, which is a stone’s throw away, to ensure the demand is met.
The customer list includes the rich and the famous. “Sourav Ganguly sends his staff members to buy our cakes during this festive season. Ace tennis player Leander Paes visits our shop whenever he is in town,” says Halder. In fact, it’s the nostalgia associated with such traditional establishments that draws people across several generations to them, says food historian and consultant Pritha Sen. “Christmas is that time of the year when people seek the comfort of coming home to their families and indulge in traditional cakes and baked goodies. A large part of Nahoum’s customers is, in fact, non-resident Indians and people who have left Kolkata. They still order cakes from here to be delivered to their homes all over the world,” she says.
Old traditional bakeries in Pune, Mumbai, Chennai, Goa and Kerala, too, have a similar client base. Royal Bakery & Confectionery, for example, has many patrons who are the fourth generation in their families buying from the Pune-based establishment.
Royal was set up in 1920 by Salamat Ardeshir Irani, a Zoroastrian from Iran who moved to Pune. He started off by selling home-baked delicacies in 1914, before setting up a bakery. “During the Second World War, a large number of British troops were stationed here and Pune was a large cantonment town. My grandfather started his business by baking and supplying bread, biscuit and cakes to the British troops. The Anglo-Indian community, too, was his clients,” says Sheriar Irani, who along with his son Yohan Irani, runs the business.
The Irani family also follows the policy of baking and selling their products on a daily basis. Eat little, eat everything is the family philosophy, says Sheriar, and this applies to the bakery as well. The most popular products include broon bread, batasa biscuits, shrewsbury biscuits and tiny glass cakes. Fruit for the season’s favourite, rich plum cakes, are soaked in rum one month in advance to infuse the flavour properly. The Iranis, who keep the recipes close to the chest, say baking is still done in old wood-fired ovens.
They intend to continue doing business this way. “We have been in this location for over 100 years and we have won the trust of our customers for generations. We want to keep the operations under our control and maintain the quality standards of our product. We have no expansion plans,” says Sheriar Irani.
The oldest bakery in India is probably Chennai’s Smith Field Bakery, which was set up in 1885 by Ponnuswamy N, a farmer who moved to the city, then called Madras, for livelihood. His grandson Shanker and great-grandson Venkatesh S run the bakery now. “My greatgrandfather started by baking bread, which was the staple food of a large number of British and Anglo-Indians in Purasavakkam, a locality in north Chennai,” says Venkatesh, an engineer who takes time off from his job to oversee operations at the bakery.
Sales of products skyrocket during the eve of Christmas, especially the traditional plum cake. “We have kept our prices modest, with the plum cake at Rs 120 for 400 g,” Venkatesh says. He is wary of expanding or going the franchise way because he fears the family will lose control over the strict quality standards that have won the loyalty of customers. “So far, we have kept our operations small and traditional. I’m wary of offers that have been coming in from investors and venture capitalists,” adds Venkatesh.
Fear of not having enough control on quality kept MP Ramesh, the director of Cochin Bakery, also away from expansion beyond south India. He is keen on protecting the legacy of the bakery started by his father MP Achuthan and uncles MP Karunakaran, MP Kumaran and MP Balan in 1939. “Once we had plans to start operations in Delhi and other places. But we were not willing to compromise on quality so we shelved that plan,” says Ramesh. The legacy of Cochin Bakery though dates back to 1880 when Mambally Bapu started what is considered the first bakery in south India in Thalassery called Maballys Royal Biscuit Factory.
The four founders of Cochin Bakery were the sons of Mambally’s son Gopalan’s sister-inlaw. Viceroy of India Lord Mountbatten and the Raja of Cochin are said to have been patrons of Cochin Bakery cakes. Specialities include ghee cake, many varieties of plum cake and Japanese cake.
Baking was introduced in Kerala by the Portuguese around the 16th century, says writer Lathika George. “Many old houses in Kerala had their own wood-fired ovens, called bormas, and have carried on the tradition of baking for centuries.
Many recipes are a fusion of traditional Kerala cuisine with Portuguese and Dutch elements. The plum cakes, for instance, are rich with the locally grown spices, and may include products like pineapple and coconut.”
Christmas keeps the staff busy at Wenger’s too. The bakery was set up by Swiss couple Jeanne Sterchi Wenger and HC Wenger in Delhi in 1926. When they retired and moved to Dehra Dun, the couple sold their business to their general manager, Brij Mohan Tandon, in 1944. Tandon had by then developed a strong bond with customers, too. Today, the business is managed by Atul, Tandon’s grandson, and his cousin Aman.
Like other traditional bakeries, Wenger’s also has loyal customers who keep coming back for their favourites, including pineapple pastry, chocolate truffle cake and black forest pastry, says Charanjeet Singh, who has been working at the bakery since 1965. “Christmas season is the busiest time at the bakery. Sales go up 30% this time of the year,” adds Singh. Weekly cake sales often cross 2,500 kg during this season. What keeps him going is that old customers drop in to buy goodies and end up chatting with the staff members. There is a sense of warmth and nostalgia, he adds.
Mum's plum cake
Recipe from Patricia Dcruz, 78, of Chennai. She is well known amongst family & friends for her & grape wine. She has never used any fancy baking equipment. Her cakes are kneaded by hand & baked in a stove-top bake oven
1 kg mixed dry fruits ( chopped fine and soaked in dark rum along with 2 tsps spice powder 2 weeks prior)
Mix 250 gms sooji & 300 gms butter - (soak over-night)
250 gms maida
300 gms powdered sugar
6 large eggs
1tsp baking powder
2 tsps vanilla essence
1 cup burnt sugar for colouring.
Beat eggs...white & yolks separately.
Sift maida along with baking powder.
Cream together sooji & butter.
Add sugar & eggs - and knead.
Add maida & essence and knead for few more minutes.
Finally add fruits & burnt sugar.... mix well to combine all ingredients.
Pour batter into greased baking tray.
Bake @ 180 degrees for 30 - 45 mins.
To ensure cake is baked. Stick a fork into the centre of the cake. It should come out clean.
Cool and store in airtight container.