While the city is still asleep, Mohammed Tafazzul and a few other breadwallahs pack the tin-boxes attached to their bicycles with fresh, warm bread, and set out to deliver it to a few households in south Kolkata.
One of the houses they deliver to is ours.
Since 30 years, my mother has been using this bread to make French toasts, keema sandwiches, cheese-rolls, and our favourite Seyal bread. Sometimes, we eat it straight out of the box.
The pound bread from Ahmed Ali Bakery has slowly but surely seeped into our lives as not just a food item, but a cultural experience. Although fluffy and soft, it does not crumble. One side of the loaf is left uncovered while baking, giving it its toasty flavour.
The late Ahmed Ali from Muzaffarpur, Bihar, has left behind a long, dedicated family of bakers who make, what is possibly, the best bread in town. His descendants became breadwallahs to keep Ali’s legacy alive. Besides, their ancestors had had an unsuccessful stint at being farmers.
As she chomps on her breakfast, a sizeable omelette made of two brown eggs and three slices of buttered bread, my mother wonders aloud for the millionth time, “How do they make this beauty?”
And, jokingly, I suggest that we go find out.
That morning, when Tafazzul came to our society for a second round of delivery, I asked him where their bakery is.
“Lal masjid ke paas, Beck Bagan mein,” he answers. And so my mother and I decide to visit it in the afternoon.
Beck Bagan (possibly a corrupted version of Beg Bagan), not particularly famous for bakeries, is dotted with meat shops. Apart from the superior mutton and beef, people also come here to buy vegetables and flowers. A mosque is under construction and the main street is buzzing with cars and hurrying pedestrians.
In a corner of the neighbourhood, dark alleys lead to a run-down den. Inside, rugged walls, wooden tables, and a red fire-extinguisher are smothered with a layer of white flour. The scent is warm and tender.
The harsh bright dazzle from white tubelights has replaced the dim glow of lanterns from the 1950s.
Above the bakery is where some of the 35 workers, aged anywhere between mid-20s to the early-60s, stay, while the rest live in the neighbouring slum. The machaan cannot accommodate all at once, and so they take turns. While one batch gets ready for bed, the other wakes up to work. There are at least 12 people always toiling. Ahmed Ali Bakery is open and functional 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
All self-sufficient, the breadwallahs or karigars (artisans/craftsmen), don’t depend on each other – everyone is an expert at every item and they treat each other as equals.
It’s 4 pm, and they are waking up from their siesta and sipping on cha. In Kolkata, nothing great ever happens without an afternoon nap and a good cup of tea.
Inside, an enormous oven, as big as a closet, is built into a wall. Mohammed Ali Hussain, the oldest and most experienced of the artisans, handles it. At 60, he is determined to keep the quality intact and take forward the legacy of the man who created this delicacy.
There isn’t enough room for my mother and me, so we squeeze into a small corner and watch. Ali Hussain shoves large logs of wood into the oven and lights them up. Meanwhile, the others prepare the dough that will eventually be doused with asli ghee and delivered to homes.
The low-key, no-frills establishment prides itself on not being mainstream. Few know about the breadwallahs and they are happy to be on the periphery. Word of mouth, in the form of customer recommendations to friends and family, is the only advertisement they depend on.
The story of the bakery is as simple as its appearance.
Tired of the pittance he was making through farming, Ahmed Ali decided to learn baking from his cousin in Ranchi and moved to Kolkata. Since there weren’t too many bakeries in the neighbourhood, he decided to start one.
“The recipe is the same and there is no change in the flavour,” Mohammed Khurshid, the 35-year-old grandson of Ahmed Ali, tells me. “We have only experimented to make the bread last longer.”
I spot a packet of branded multigrain bread – a “sample from customers” the artisans have to taste and imitate with their hands.
My mother tells them packaged bread tastes raw, like paper, and sticks to the roof of her mouth. “Aadat ho gayi hai aapke bread ki,” she tells them as she looks on enthusiastically.
Nearly 160 kg of flour is tipped into an enormous aluminium bowl that looks more like a bathtub. Proportionate amounts of salt, water, yeast, sugar, oil, and calcium propionate are added. After mixing lightly, the ingredients are swept aside, leaving a cavity of water in the centre. This water, which contains small quantities of all the ingredients, is set aside for tomorrow’s bread, much like the way a small amount of curd is kept aside to make more curd. Ali Hussain tells me it’s what gives the bread its flavour.
But another worker, whom everyone fondly calls Gabbar, tells me it’s the magic in their hands. “This isn’t Britannia where everything is made with machines. We do everything with the strength of our fingers, hands, and arms. From blending to the final slicing, this is our craft.”
I look around and there isn’t a single mechanical instrument in sight.
Four men surround the bathtub and sink their hands into the soft, loose mixture. They stir and pound it with their arms, now elbow-deep in the tub, until it acquires the consistency of quicksand.
As I take pictures, they get conscious and ask me how they look while working. “Bahut behtar, janaab (very good, sir),” I tell them, and they smile. Ali Hussain walks over to take a look at himself on my phone and says, “Arre, hum toh Modi lag rahe hain (Oh! I look like (Prime Minister) Modi)!” Everyone bursts into fits of laughter and ‘Modi saab’ becomes Ali Hussain’s name for the day.
After two hours of pounding and kneading, the off-white dough is spread on huge wooden tables, looking and feeling like a large mound of chewing gum because of the yeast. It’s so soft that it keeps sagging – like the loose skin on my grandmother’s arm. The workers have to constantly cut the drooping chunks before they fall to the floor and put them back on the table.
Pound bread, sandwich bread, garlic bread, brown bread, burger buns, pizza base, and soup sticks are all made from the same dough, proportionately cut and weighed. For the bread, smooth round balls are moulded into cylindrical forms to fit aluminium trays. They are then set aside for the dough to rise.
At 9 pm, Ali Hussain puts out the fire in the oven and clears the ashes with an iron rod. The bread bakes for 35 minutes using the residual heat, after Ali Hussain meticulously places each tray inside with a wooden spatula.
The bakery, redolent with the smell of comfort, is now full of fluffy pound bread. The loaves are taken out of their moulds and drenched in ghee, ready for delivery.
The establishment doesn’t serve more than 400 households, nor does it sell goods commercially. Breads are priced between Rs 20 and Rs 35 per loaf.
While mainstream bakeries such as Flury’s and Nahoum’s have enriched the patisserie experience for Kolkattans, Ahmed Ali Bakery is perhaps Kolkata’s best-kept secret.
It isn’t just the quality, it is also about the process of receiving precisely sliced homemade loaf every morning, right at your doorstep. It is one of the many traditions that places the city in history and gives Kolkata its cultural, nostalgic charm.
The number of orders hardly ever fluctuates. There are barely any new customers and the old ones are faithful. An order has to be placed a day in advance, as only fresh bread is delivered, leaving no scope for extra orders.
The karigars proudly tell me that not a morsel is wasted in the process. And the crumbs that are invariably left behind are packed in large jute sacks and used as fodder.
It’s nearly midnight by the time they conclude their stories. Gabbar graciously serves me my seventeenth, and last, cup of tea before saying goodbye. In the machaan, sleepy heads are getting ready, and those below are calling it a day.
With strong memories of the tender aroma of pound loaves, at night I lie on my bed, which feels a lot like the soft creamy batter I have seen and touched all day.
I wake up when I hear the doorbell in the morning. Tafazzul is excited to see me, and his bread… it has never tasted better.
(Chandni Doulatramani is an independent journalist based in Kolkata. She has previously worked with Reuters and Mint)