Nilgiris Lower Coonoor may not have the famed salubriousness of Upper Coonoor but it has something else, finds Pankaja Srinivasan
Ahmed Sheriff looks vaguely familiar. It is almost 4 p.m. and I wait patiently at the Crown Bakery on Mount Road, Coonoor, trying not to stare at him. Fresh buns should be arriving anytime soon. It is no hardship, waiting. I munch on ginger biscuits in the meanwhile — quite wonderful, with just the right proportion of ginger and sweet. And I breathe in the yummy floury, doughy, yeasty smells of the shop.
If you had come clattering up on horseback a hundred years ago to Crown Bakery, you would have smelled the same smells as you waited for Ahmed's great grandfather to serve you. Of course, you would have had a panoramic view of the green hillsides, pretty cottages and church spires, and fresh, cool breeze.
Now all you see is a mess of ugly concrete construction, loudspeakers, dirty roads and buses bearing down with ear-splitting horns. Only an occasional whiff of eucalyptus holds out hope that not too far from there is the beautiful bit of the hill station — a tea-and-cucumber-sandwiches world of stately homes and sweeping driveways. That bit of Coonoor continues to be picture-postcard perfect. But Lower Coonoor is another story altogether, but for some charming surprises such as Crown Bakery.
Today, a row of cabs parked at its doorstep almost entirely hides the bakery from view. You miss the modest notice that says “Since 1880”, at first. Then you realise it is 131 years old!
If I were the queen of Coonoor, I would have it declared a heritage site, cleaned up the area outside and placed some chairs and tables outside for people to enjoy their cakes and tea. I am surrounded by history disguised as biscuits and buns.
In 1880, G. Mohammed Sheriff, for reasons not too clear, travelled all the way from Hyderabad to Coonoor to bake bread in the hills. His son, G.M. Abdul Sattar inherited the business and continued to supply soup sticks, cakes and bread to the substantial British barracks at Wellington. And when Mahatma Gandhi came to Coonoor, he actually visited the bakery. It was on February 2, 1934. It was Sattar's son, Mohammed Sheriff Basha, who ushered the shop into Independent India.
Ahmed Sheriff tells us all this in his soft voice. Glass shelves at the back hold big bell jars, also a century old. “They are from Germany and Britain,” he says. Some of them hold cookies and biscuits, but most of them are too rare and precious for everyday use. There are two old clocks also of World War vintage. “I have not changed anything at the shop, except for adding shutters in front. The threshold of the shop still has the original iron scraper where customers scraped the mud off their boots before stepping in.”
Not just the shop, even the recipes for the baked goodies are more than a hundred years old. Ahmed says he has no written recipe. Everything was passed down by word of mouth. The oven is still a wood-fired one, as it was in his great grandfather's days. There is nothing at all by way of information at Coonoor to tell tourists that Crown Bakery is one of the oldest shops there. Only scraps of information that Ahmed remembers remain as a record. He says his father remembers playing football outside the shop as a school boy. Imagine!
“They say some of our cakes and biscuits travelled on ships all the way to England,” says Ahmed, as he tries hard to remember more interesting things about his inheritance. Sadly, he has no old photographs of the bakery. We have to rely on our imagination. But the buns are the very same they baked all those years ago, Ahmed assures me. I bite into one, and as I say bye to him and leave with the masala varkey, salt biscuits and, of course, the ginger ones, it dawns on me. Ahmed looks just like NDTV's Prannoy Roy.
This story was edited for spelling errors.