Last month, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) released an alarming report. According to it, 84% of 38 pre-packaged breads, pav and buns, ready-to-eat burger bread and ready-to-eat pizza breads tested by CSE’s labs had tested positive for potassium bromate and potassium iodate—additives used to treat the dough.
The former is a category 2B carcinogen (i.e., possibly cancer-causing but no damning evidence yet) and the latter could lead to thyroid disorders.
The report indicted some of Delhi’s best-known bread brands and fast-food chains. A few admitted to use (there’s no regulatory guideline in India on using the two chemicals), while others denied the charge.
One name, though, stood out in the report: Defence Bakery. Located in the market of eponymous south Delhi locality Defence Colony, all of the bakery’s four products—wholewheat bread, jumbo slice brown, brown bread and multigrain—showed no traces of any of the two chemicals.
This popular store was the only brand in the entire city (among the ones tested) to come out clean.
Had founder Jagdish Mitra Dhingra been alive, he would undoubtedly have been proud.
Though one can now credit Dhingra for laying the foundation of the Delhi’s most “natural" bread—as French national and Defence Colony resident for the last 14 years, Couvet Maguli described her favourite bakery’s products to me—his legacy goes way beyond. At least, according to Gaurav Dhingra, his grandson and the man who currently runs the shop at Defence Colony market.
Though Gaurav has little to offer by way of documentary or photographic evidence of this, the Jagdish Mitra Dhingra/Defence Bakery saga, he said, began in pre-Partition Multan (now in Pakistan) where Dhingra used to run something called the National Biscuit Factory (which Google seems to have no idea about). The National Biscuit Factory was an official caterer to the British Indian Army, and “served cookies to the BIA during the World War II", according to Gaurav Dhingra.
And it seems Jagdish Mitra Dhingra and his factory was doing more than just fine: as violence around Partition broke out in 1947, he chartered a private plane and fled to the safety of Mumbai. With the National Biscuit Factory now gone, Dhingra set up a candy unit.
It was a dud.
“I guess he didn’t really know how to run a candy business," says Gaurav Dhingra.
His grandfather, though, wasn’t the kind to get bogged down by failure. He decided to shift base to Delhi—a place, which at the time, had much more space for new enterprises. And that’s how Defence Bakery was born in 1962.
Much bread has since moved through the ovens of Defence Bakery’s kitchen—which itself has seen many changes over the years. After Dhingra, his son took on the mantle in the ’80s before passing it on to his own sons, Gaurav and Tushar, at the turn of the century.
From the coal and wood-fired ovens till the ’80s to modern baking equipment now, Defence Bakery’s kitchen mirrors Delhi’s own transition from the licence era to a modern city.
“I remember there used to be an acute shortage of basic baking ingredients back in the ’80s. My father would get flour in his scooter since there was no distribution channel as such and everything was controlled by the few big industrial houses," Dhingra says.
Then suddenly everything changed in the ’90s. With the advent of cable television, people discovered pizzas and pastries. “My father then introduced the pizza bread—and we would get mozzarella cheese, then almost unheard of, from the National Diary Research Institute," Dhingra recalls.
That was the ’90s. Now, Defence Colony has two gourmet pizza outlets and at least three more places that serve up a decent pizza; there are four other high-end bakeries that sell fancy products with European names.
Has survival then become difficult in the face of competitors with more money? “Yes, a lot of change, but one thing’s remained constant: the fact that we were, still are, and always will be a neighbourhood bakery where people come to get their essentials. So business is constant," Dhingra maintains.
But what are margins like? Because, to be fair, Defence Bakery breads and cakes, even by Defence Colony standards, are almost ridiculously cheap (a kg of Black Forest cake in DB is ₹ 750; the gourmet bakery opposite sells it for ₹ 1,400).
“We cut costs because we run the business ourselves unlike our competitors. I am here almost every day; my brother, Tushar, is the executive chef and runs the kitchen." Also, Tushar says, the fact that Defence Bakery hasn’t turned into an artsy cafe where people chill over a cup of coffee has helped him cut overhead costs.
“We shut at 9.30pm; it’s a conscious decision, for we are not a place people come over for late night desserts. People come to Defence Bakery for freshly baked bread."
Back to where we began then: what are these chemicals that have suddenly made the humble bread a potential cancer threat? And more importantly, why does everyone else use it and not Defence Bakery?
The answer, Dhingra tells me, is in what he has already told me.
“Potassium bromate and potassium iodate increase the shelf life of bread. We don’t care for more shelf life. We are a neighbourhood bakery; people come to us every day for fresh stuff."
Three years back, Defence Bakery added a new neighbourhood—Greater Kailash-2—to its roster. Or perhaps, it is the other way round.
But wherever it is, it remains just good old Defence Bakery.