Toast to the past
OFFBEAT They've baked countless cakes and bread for decades. Anusha Parthasarathy and Asha Sridhar remove the crust and re-visit history through the city's oldest bakeries
When Chennai was still Madras and the city hadn't been invaded by five-star hotels and pastry chefs, regulars at some of the city's earliest neighbourhood bakeries would leave not just with the finest breads and confectionaries, but also a basketful of memories. Third-generation bakers from some of the oldest bakeries tell us the story of how loyal customers have helped them stand the test of time.
If this story was written a century ago, Kandhasaamy Mudaliar, who started The Crown Bakery in Mylapore, would tell you of a time when trained hands made cakes from vanaspathi dalda and cooked them on wood fires. Nestled at the edge of Bazaar road, it's very likely that you'd miss this small bakery but for the familiar warm smell of fresh bread that wafts from it.
M. Sukumaran, who has been running the bakery since 1979, talks about its history. “It was started in 1905. My father Manickadevar worked there since he was a child. When the owner died, his wife put my father in charge, and would take a monthly fee. Later, she passed on the business to us,” he explains.
The bakery has lived through some poignant moments in history, including the two World Wars. “Our store used to ration out bread to the people and the army,” says Sukumaran. The bakery also helps locals bake their own cakes. “We encourage people to bring in their cake batter and we bake it for them. This way, our customers keep coming back.”
The shop's speciality is their bread, bun and plum cakes and they also cater their confectionaries to schools nearby. What set Crown Bakery apart was their natural wood fire bread. But recently, they switched to ovens. “My customers are already complaining that the old wood fire taste was the best,” laughs Sukumaran.
Slice of history
Bosotto Bros is another bakery that has been intertwined with Chennai's history. K. Rajkumar, who has been in charge since 1990, is part of the family who took over the Bosotto Hotel from its Italian owners in the early 1930s.
“Our family used to be in the dairy business, and we supplied milk and other products to Bosotto Hotel. When it was on sale, my grandfather Muslapa Chowdry purchased the name in 1928 and started a bakery. This way, it was already a well-known brand,” says Rajkumar, “The bakery's current location on Mount Road was built by him in 1934. We sold it a few years later.”
It was, in fact, so well known that Prince Andrew's first birthday (1961) had a cake made by Bosottos. Queen Elizabeth, who was visiting India then, and former Chief Minister Kamaraj were present. “Kamaraj was my uncle's friend. When the prince turned one, they ordered a cake from our bakery to mark the occasion,” he explains. A photo of the Queen cutting the cake still hangs on the wall of their Mount Road branch.
If the number of years they have been around is any measure for the quality of their breads and biscuits, then Benny's Bakery in Royapuram has been around since 1949. When Dharmarajan came to Madras in 1934 he was already a baker, who had spent his childhood kneading dough and fermenting yeast at bakeries in Madurai and Kumbakonam. “My father started off by selling snacks and baked biscuits at tea shops and small outlets before starting out on his own. In those days everything was handmade and we had a team of around 20 people. Today with machines for almost everything we only need about ten bakers,” says Kamraj, who runs the bakery with his son Jaiprakash.
Kamraj talks about a time when machines hadn't invaded kitchens yet. “We used a technique called hand-dye, using which we made biscuits in different shapes like coin biscuits and doll biscuits. Today it is all mechanised and they call it cookies,” he adds. From introducing the city to cream biscuits, to reproducing photographs on birthday cakes, Benny's still makes some of their trademark confectionaries such as baby rusks and coconut biscuits.
In the 1950s it was called the Gandhinagar Bakery, and was the only branch of McRennett, which was started in 1903. Known as Adyar Bakery today, R. Mukund and R. Ramesh are the fourth-generation owners of this thriving corporate business. Says Mukund, “We started off as a small neighbourhood bakery and since there was a kitchen at the back, you could smell the bread even as you passed the store.”
Since this bakery was the only one of its kind catering to the whole of Adyar, and not just Gandhinagar, the name was changed to Adyar Bakery. “We initially concentrated on making breads, after which we graduated to cakes and cookies. The tea-bar cake, which is an English recipe, is unique to the bakery and it remains unchanged till date,” he adds. The Adyar Bakery now has about 35 branches in the city and plans on taking the number to 100 in another five years.