Updated: December 14, 2014 12:15:14 am
A variety of baked delicacies and loaves of fresh bread are on display in vintage wood-and-glass cabinets fit to house curios. Antique wooden tables and chairs occupy the space. There are paper cuttings of advertisements from the 1930s that line the butter-yellow walls. One ad, dating back to 1933, found in a file with hundreds of others, lists Christmas goodies on sale. There’s assorted tea cakes, vanilla cream tarts, almond macaroons, puff rolls, plum cakes, stuffed roast piglings, accompanied by corresponding sketches of the items in black-and-white. Time stands still at the American Express Bakery in Byculla, Mumbai, and with Christmas around the corner, the past smells ever so inviting.
“We haven’t found reason to change what made us popular in the first place. We’re an establishment that still uses the age-old recipes my father and grandfather employed,” says Ross Carvalho, 75, the third-generation owner of the nearly century-old bakery that was established in the 1920s by his grandfather Francesco. With his sons, Emil, 47, and Yvan, 42, Ross runs a tight ship that continues to offer its clientele a slice, a nibble, a bite of a time gone by, and at very competitive rates. Not for the Carvalhos are the usual greasy chicken lollipops or gooey mayonnaise-laden shredded chicken sandwiches; their delicacies include a chicken bacon and egg croissant, the Quiche Lorraine, a pie with a layer each of spinach, chicken and scrambled egg — all under Rs 50 a piece. Their Viennese truffle and Hungarian coffee cake share space with a black forest pastry and cream rolls.
At the heart of the business lies a recipe book that has been passed down to Ross by his father. Every item at the bakery can find its source there, and this Christmas, Emil has borrowed it to try his hand at Stollen bread, a fruit cake made of dried fruit and marzipan, covered with sugar. If the experiment works, they will stock it this festive season. Apart from such occasional experiments, the only other changes made to the Christmas menu over the past decade is the addition of a few traditional sweets such as guava cheese, marzipan, coconut toffee and Florentine, a sweet made of dry fruits, chocolate and orange, “because people no longer have the time to make them at home”.
It may seem that the establishment is resistant to change, especially in comparison with the newer, glitzy patisseries and boulangeries that have mushroomed over the last few decades. But American Express has stood the test of time; Ross describes how the bakery has survived India’s difficult political climate over the years — the shortages in sugar, flour and even wrapping paper during World War II; supply issues during the 1971 war when they had to replace almonds with peanuts in marzipan and other sweets; the raids by police during prohibition in the ’70s when they would mistake the smell of fermenting yeast for brewing alcohol; or even the recent Kashmir floods that caused walnuts to disappear from the market.
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That’s where experience counts, says Ross. “Once, in the ’80s, there was an excess of flour and we bought it in bulk on discount. The breads made using that flour would come out excellent but even before the loaves would cool down, the surface would cave in,” recounts Ross, who soon realised the problem was caused due to premature rain. Excess moisture had caused the germination of the wheat crop. “I hit upon the formula to counter the issue — increasing the yeast content,” he says.
A bestselling item, their bread is supplied to several high-end caterers and gymkhanas in Mumbai. But Emil, who handles this part of the business, rues the loss of skill and specialisation they once had before the trend of mass-produced sliced white bread, sold at lower prices, took over in the ’80s. “Those days, each bakery would have its own preferred fermenting agent — we used toddy for that strong flavour,” he says.
The Carvalhos are now trying to recreate their old recipes in keeping with the revival of the artisanal trend. “Breads are temperamental, sensitive to even the smallest of change in temperature, moisture etc. It takes years to get them right,” says Emil.
This year, Mumbai appears to lack the customary nip in the air that signals the onset of the festive season but the factory floor at the bakery is abuzz with preparations for manufacturing marzipan. The year’s first batch of plum cakes sits atop a shelf. As Christmas approaches, production will increase manifold to match the demand. “We’re Catholic, but we haven’t developed any family tradition of celebrating Christmas since the season is the busiest of the year for us,” says Yvan.
Instead, they are all at work for long hours until December 25 and then the family — including Yvan and Emil’s two other siblings, a brother and a sister — will come together for Christmas dinner. “This year, my 13-year-old nephew wants to make pork ribs using a recipe that takes over 12 hours to prepare,” says Emil, adding that “the boy has recently discovered his passion for food”. Perhaps, it runs in the family.
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