So you’re new to Bangalore? I’m asked. From New Delhi, eh? What do you like about here? Best thing is the weather, I guess?
Actually, no. The best thing about Bangalore is the fact that, unless you live in one of the new housing zones in the middle of nowhere, you’re always just a short walk from a good bakery. Not the pretentious, glass-fronted, air-conditioned candy shops that pass off as bakeries in New Delhi, where a loaf of ordinary white—wrapped in cellophane, with the date of manufacture pasted on the bottom—can set you back by Rs60. These are real bakeries, with the ovens behind, the sweaty Moonstruck-Nicolas Cage kind, with fresh bread in several times a day. They come in all denominations—Iyengar, Muslim, Christian—and in the city of pubs, these are the real “locals”.
When I’m asked what factors we considered before picking the flat we live in, I stop short of mentioning the three bakeries within a 200m radius and the others a short drive away. They probably didn’t swing the deal but they kept us going during the mad, unplanned house-hunting and became our mainstay for the first few weeks in Bangalore, when we were coming to grips with a strange language and the difference between a head nod and a head shake. It was simple, basic stuff; buns, both plain and decorated, Victoria cakes, and the like. There were two riots in our first month here and each time, as I drove home to beat the curfew, the only shops that were still open were the bakeries. Man cannot live by bread alone? Think again.
You see, I’ve always been a bread freak. Blame it on my mother, who can create magic with flour, water and yeast (some cinnamon helps too). I’ve grown up to the smell of freshly baked rolls, pizzas, herb breads, pies, tarts, the works. It’s a serious addiction, of glue-sniffing proportions—as I watched her roll out the dough, I would help myself to stray bits, ignoring remonstrations and warnings of an impending stomach ache. The best were the bits from the tart shells, which were sweet and had the crunch of sugar. I think the bread mania ran in the family—my grandfather’s morning toast could only be from his wife’s brown bread, which he carried even on long holidays and from which he would carefully scrape away the mould. I’ll stop short of the mould but I will happily defy the nutritionist who tells me to give up bread because it’s all made with dalda.
And so, I’ve spent a lifetime seeking out good bread; sounds easy but isn’t. After the bakeries of Kolkata, where I grew up, everything else paled in comparison. Ahmedabad and Vadodara had too few and far between, Chandigarh had none, and the bread in New Delhi was overpriced and underwhelming. After 12 years of doing the hard yards, and driving my wife batty in the process (it takes a certain eccentricity to appreciate one’s spouse pressing several loaves of bread, trying to decide which will toast best, in front of an incredulous south Delhi vendor), we hit pay dirt in Bangalore.
We found Thom’s by happenstance (though I’d probably have sniffed it out eventually), thanks to a broker who arranged to meet us there. It’s an institution in the Cantonment area, and a friend of mine drives all the way from Whitefield, 20-odd kilometres away, to stock up for his parents every time he’s in town. With good reason, too. The bakery is in one corner of the department store, past the ever-crowded cash counters, behind the stacks of canned food and banana chips and chaklis, but it has no identity crisis. The display is simple: two glass-fronted counters in which lie the various cakes and cheese straws, and on which lies a mountain of bread.
All kinds of bread: masala buns, plain buns, sweet buns (with the cherry bits), brown bread, French loaves, brown round bread, white sandwich bread, hot dog rolls. In the huge hot case on the wall behind is an assortment of samosas and puffs. Behind that is the bakery from where, if you stand a few minutes, you’ll see tray loads of goodies emerging. You can buy enough for an office party or—and this is why I love Bangalore—you can buy a solitary sweet bun. The man will obligingly open a packet of four, take out one and wrap it for you. All with a smile.
My favourite, though, is Albert Bakery in the Frazer Town area, whose nondescript sign is literally overshadowed by the garish neon of the Barista next door. You would probably walk straight by, down Mosque Road, as I did when I first arrived here, but sooner or later you’ll notice the crowd inside and wonder what the buzz is all about. It’s a tiny place, with the action centred on 8 sq. ft of counters, shelves, hot cases and piles of food. I’ll be honest; much of the stuff leaves me cold, I don’t even know what it is.
There is stuff that looks like malpua—thick, brown, leathery, in syrup; there is the stuff that looks like a pizza gone wrong, a thick slice of dough with a multicoloured capsicum-heavy topping; there are the cakes with icing in hues that wouldn’t grace any self-respecting artist’s palette. What it lacks in subtlety, though, it makes up for with its 80-year reputation. In any case, my focus is squarely on the buns and the mutton samosas. The samosas are tiny triangles of sin that burst in your mouth in an explosion of spice, grease and heat; you can probably have three or four before heartburn renders you senseless. The buns are the real thing—large, brown, with sesame seeds sprinkled on the top. Slice it open, have it plain; you don’t need butter. If you wish to indulge, though, toast it lightly (time to invest in the toaster that does buns too) and spread just a pat of butter. Don’t say, though, that I didn’t warn you.
There’s probably nothing very special about Albert Bakery; every neighbourhood bakery will treat its regulars the same way, will tell them to wait five minutes, don’t take these buns, the fresh ones are on their way from the ovens just behind the swing doors. My Whitefield friend frequents Brothers Bakery, with its gargantuan chicken puffs—for which his father defies the effects of a severe stroke—to pick up, freshly baked, whenever the son is in town. Another friend swears by her Iyengar in sedate Jayanagar. Those living around Brigade Road go to Fathima and nowhere else. One serious food writer says the best is BB Bakery in Visheshvarpuram.
These are simple pleasures that really don’t stack up much against the obvious advantages we’ve left behind in New Delhi, the air connectivity, the roads, the superior bookshops and fine dine restaurants, the million ways to spend an obscene amount of money. But as all our familiar signposts morph into each other with cookie-cutter sameness and bloat with economies of scale—and Bangalore, I guess, is the symbol of all of this—the neighbourhood bakery offers hope of continuity, character and quality.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor, India, of Cricinfo.com
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