At the crowded Perambur Barracks Road, the smell of fuel and smoke engulfs you. But, from amidst it rises the distinct aroma of freshly baked bread. This neighbourhood is used to that — people here have been treated to it for the last 132 years, thanks to Smith Field Bakery, one of the oldest bakeries in Chennai, that has been whipping up a variety of cakes and other bakes since 1885.
As it stood there, it watched the city evolve. The street had a smattering of other bakeries, which eventually shut shop. But Smith Field still stands here, alone and unrelenting. Even as fancy patisseries across the city dole out pretty pink pastries and boxes of rainbow-coloured macarons, this century-old brand takes pride in its rows of glass jars piled with yellow, white and brown cookies that grab all the attention.
Smith Field’s cakes have been part of many celebrations — birthdays, anniversaries, weddings... It’s where losers of bets bought treats for the others, it’s where couples met for a snack of puffs and fruit cakes, it’s where students celebrated their final exam results. For many old-timers in the locality, mornings started with loaves from this bakery. “There are so many memories associated with our bakery. People come here and reminisce, and that’s one of the reasons I want to keep it running,” says 33-year-old Venkatesh Shanker, the fourth-generation owner of the bakery. It was started by his great grandfather Ponnuswamy Naicker.
“Then, my grandfather was in charge. After that, my father and his brother took over,” says Shanker, adding: “I keep telling my father, let’s try out a few new things, but he still likes getting things done the old way.” That explains the 20-year-old kneader in the kitchen that heaves and sighs as it mixes dough at its own sweet pace. It takes an hour to prepare the dough, whereas a new one can do it in just 20 minutes, sighs Shanker. The flour-covered slab in the kitchen looks as weary as the other gadgets that have been constantly churning out delectable goodies. “Our chief baker is in his 80s. The others working here are in their 60s,” adds Shanker. Talk about old-world charm!
While the plum and tea cakes are the oldest offerings on the menu, Shanker says he recently introduced cupcakes, brownies, carrot cakes and fresh cream cakes to keep up with popular trends. “We introduced red velvet cakes. But, people are used to old flavours. They aren’t familiar with cream cheese, which is a main ingredient in red velvet. There have been numerous cases where clients have brought back the cake saying the cream is sour. So, now, we just use American ice cream soda as flavour,” he adds, amused. Jam buns (they sell 80 a day) and chicken and vegetable puffs are quick snacks for people on the move. But what sells the most are the buns and breads. “We sell 150 loaves of bread every day. Around 30 years ago, we used to sell 500 loaves and bake twice a day. Now, we just bake once, at 10 in the night. It’s ready by 6 am and almost everything gets sold out,” he adds. Whatever remains is toasted and sold as bread crumbs.
The bakery is now situated in a new facility. The older one was just across the road, but the building was so rundown that it could crumble any moment. “We moved here in 2014. This is our home. We’ve turned the ground floor into the bakery. As a result, we don’t have the wood-fired oven, a hit in the earlier setting, here. We have plans to reintroduce it,” he adds. There isn’t really enough parking space. Despite that, a steady stream of regulars and newcomers flocks in. “Those who lived here earlier and moved out of Chennai drop by when they are in the city and take back parcels. Many of them want it packed in tin cans so they can ship it abroad,” adds Shanker.
After all, this little bakery and the familiar taste of its baked delights have been part of many people’s everyday life, growing up.