For more than 125 years, the ten-feet-long stone slab under a thatched roof at the Smith Field bakery on the Perambur Barracks (PB) Road in Vepery of north Chennai has rolled out endless amounts of sweet bread, buns and a variety of biscuits and ‘T’ cakes that are cooked in natural wood fire. The establishment is the only known bakery in the city to still use this traditional method to make baked products.
Every day, a long row of customers wait patiently in front of the bakery for their turn to buy their favourite baked items from the shop. Most of them hail from Perambur, Purasavakkam, Vepery, Royapuram, Washermenpet, Basin Bridge, Elephant Gate and Choolai — that comprise the nerve of the old Madras. “Buying bread freshly baked in the wood fires of the shop is almost a ritual. I have been coming here for nearly 45 years. The bread from here is sweet and soft,” said 72-year-old Jacob, a customer
Considered to be the oldest surviving bakery in the city, the bakery was founded by Sadas (Sadarasapattinam near Kalpakkam) P. Ponnuswamy Naicker in 1885 and named after the first ICS Commissioner of Madras Corporation, E. Conran Smith. In fact, a separate locality was named after Smith when a British police officers’ housing quarters was opened in 1931, a few hundred metres away from the bakery. “At that time, many establishments were named after well-known British officers in the city to help obtain permission to start the business. Another reason was that bakery products at that time could be afforded only by high-income groups, that too, mainly Anglo-Indians. So, our customers were able to identify with the shop,” said S. Rajesh, the great-grandson of Ponnuswamy, who currently owns the shop.
Tucked between high-rise complexes at the centre of the PB Road, the shop would be easy to miss but for the familiar warm smell of fresh bread and biscuits that emerges from it. Cakes made with almond, plum, lemon, strawberry, chocolate and walnut, horse shoe cakes, puffs made of mutton, chicken, egg — the bakery satisfies every taste bud. Biscuits, sandwich, rolls and milk are also available. But the most favoured baked item in the shop continues to be bread. “The credit for it goes to the traditional method of making bread using wood fires that makes the bread soft and easy to consume, especially for children,” said 78-year-old P.V. Ramaswamy, a veteran bread maker at the shop.
The bakery has lived through some interesting times, including the two World Wars. “During World War II, we supplied a limited quantity of free bread and buns for residents because there was shortage of food, especially pastry items at that time in the city. However, times have been tough for the establishment.
“Labour shortage has affected our business. We have reduced production,” said S. Shankar, the grandson of the founder, who ran the business for 35 years.