Christmas Eve in Bandra is no time to step into the bakery on Hill Road across the street from the Holy Family Hospital, not far from the intersection with Waroda Road that meanders through the old Anglo-Indian locality of the same name, and find someone to tell you why it’s named as American Express Bakery.
It’s definitely not a good idea to ask after the origin of its name let alone how old it is, not after an undated newspaper piece on the American Express Bakery, titled Some of the finest products in town, and yellowing from passage of time, framed and hanging proudly from the wall, starts off with:
Mr. Ross Carvalho, the owner of American Express Bakery, is unaware of the exact date the bakery [jumbled print from a cut in the paper] be a 100 years old. “It is definitely 65 years old, we have bills dating that far back,” he says.
The black and white photo accompanying the framed newspaper article, Some of the finest products in town, apparently shows the shopfront on Clare Road, Byculla. The one in Bandra we had stepped into on the evening of Christmas Eve last year is one of the three outlets of the American Express Bakery. The other two, the newspaper piece reported, are located in Santa Cruz, and Cumballa Hill. It added, “The establishment at Clare Road is the Head Office and the bakery.”
Since the framed print did not carry a byline, let alone a date, and I’m no expert in dating paper from the degree of yellowing subjected by time, I safely assume that no less than twenty years have elapsed since the piece first appeared in the series titled: Old Curiosity Shoppe . . . No 58.
Twenty years felt just right for the perceptible yellowing of paper. It felt just right to age it by two decades for no other reason than to distinguish it from the changes India began witnessing following its dallying with economic liberalisation, a period that would leave a certain way of life firmly behind, including the character of old that Bombay represented, a character that still survives in Bandra in patches, not in the least in the balconies projecting over the street below where elderly women in floral print skirts step out for air and watch the world go by, hailing familiar neighbourhood faces in Konkani. It was not the moment to dwell on any further, for the shelves along the walls were brimming with cakes and other goodies that typically bring up the end of the year in Bandra.
On a whiteboard, for the benefit of its customers, a roll call of confectionery announced their availability:
Fruit Mince Pies
Gram Sweet (Doce De Grao)
Ginger Bread Cake
There was more in the wooden shelves, in cane baskets labeled, wrapped and lined up in neat rows. A few were empty, either awaiting the arrival of stock or cleaned up by patrons making an early run on the bakery before heading back to their homes to prepare for the evening, and the Midnight Mass when they would make their way to the Mount Mary Church among other churches in Bandra and lend their soul to hyms that would stir the Bandra night, gladdening many a heart within earshot, an uplifting tune in the breeze blowing in from the sea off the road that snakes past the hill along its base.
For last minute Christmas shoppers, a board outside the bakery assured that the bakery would remain open all day on Christmas so long as they didn’t expect the bakery to pack their purchases in plastic bags. In addition to a handwritten notice, a poster in the bakery left little ambiguity in the bakery’s stand on using plastic. It said, rather asked before answering it for the customer.
Want To Help Bandra?
Don’t Ask For Plastic Bags.
And that was that. I find it difficult to imagine why anyone would want to pack their bakery purchases in plastic instead of in a brown paper bag. It’s like drinking Falooda from a beaten steel tumbler when glass beckons. As with brown paper that extends the fragrances of its contents, so does glass heighten the visual appetite for the rainbow coloured Falooda.
Past the Christmas tree blinking with colourful lights and welcoming customers stepping into the bakery, the streets bustled with Christmas shoppers. The winter sun had turned mellow as the evening set in over Bandra. A stocking hung in the front so Santa Claus would not miss it. Either way I doubted if Santa Claus would’ve missed the bakery from the road, for the lights illuminating the shelves announced a variety of confectionary to passersby on their way about town.
Within minutes of our stepping into the small outlet of the American Express Bakery, customers came filing past. From the opening at the back of the bakery the staff came carrying breads, cakes, muffins, and more.
In no time I was window shopping fragrances of freshly baked goodies, including confectionery and snacks and found myself lingering just a wee bit longer by the cane baskets.
If it wasn’t for the consideration of fresh arrivals looking to find their way past the older arrivals I would’ve stayed longer sampling more of the confectionery the shelves advertised.
I need not have worried, for stepping out of the bakery later I noticed a crowd further down the road. On approaching the crowd, A-1 bakery revealed itself. While there was no shop floor to meander about and stop by shelves, A-1 Bakery’s shop front was sufficient invitation if one was prepared to crane one’s neck and reach over heads to place and receive orders.
I cannot remember passing the American Express Bakery’s outlets in Santa Cruz, and Cumballa Hill, for if you’re looking for baked treats in the week heading into Christmas, it’s Bandra you head to. With its decidedly Goan Catholic flavour, and the not inconsiderable Anglo-Indian presence you could be forgiven for thinking that only Bandra’s bakeries do justice to confectionery in the flavours that bring Goa alive.
It’s a perception not without reason. I would readily breeze into a bakery owned by a Carvalho, a Gonsalves, a Rodrigues, a Pinto, a Noronha than walk into one owned by a Kulkarni, a Deshpande, a Jadhav, a Jain and the like even if migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Orissa were to man Noronha's ovens as is very likely. A name is a cultural association; in its longevity is invested a certain integrity by way of being true to its origins, steadfast to its cause; in this case, the recipe. Handed down generations, the feel for culinary heritage shared across generations is expected to make for authenticity. And therein lies its draw, and charm.
It’s inevitable for a city like Bandra, with a culture considerably shaped by and originally identified with the Christian community, given that the Portuguese turned it over to Jesuit priests as early as mid 1500s, to set an expectation among visitors come looking for flavours not readily available elsewhere in Mumbai. Even if they are, it’s likely they’re scattered about. The Roman Catholic churches that dot Bandra strengthen its distinct character.
It obviously matters little now if Bandra’s population shows little or no resemblance to the original mix of Christians of Goan origin, the Anglo-Indians, the Parsis. The impressions and the expectations live on in Bandra’s Bakeries, more so around Christmas time.
Later that evening, we made our way up the hill to the celebrated Mount Mary church and were treated to prayers a group of nuns were practicing for the midnight mass later that night.
Wishing everyone Merry Christmas.