Sour Dough: Making European-Style Bread In Mumbai

March 29, 2013 9:26 am by

Colette (to Linguini): How do you tell how good bread is without tasting it? Not the smell, not the look, but the *sound* of the crust. Listen.
(She presses the bread between her hands.)
Colette: Oh, symphony of crackle. Only great bread sound this way.

From the movie Ratatouille

Colette would disapprove of most of the European-style bread available in our city. And there is a lot of it. Restaurants serve a selection in their bread baskets; little bakeries in Bandra and Andheri offer French loaf and rye bread. Celejor, for example, has a section of their menu marked “Global Breads” under which they list both pav, and something called French garlic bread that looks and feels like a dinner roll. A new bakery in Worli serves olive focaccia that’s sweet and brioche that’s eggless.

There are many reasons why it’s a challenge to find good European-style bread in Mumbai. From the bakers I spoke with, I gathered that it’s a fight mainly against our weather, our water, our flour, a lack of skill and training among bakery staff, and the prevalence of pre-mixes.

Weather Woes
“With our severe humidity, a crust just won’t stay crunchy,” says restauranteur and chef Moshe Shek. “If you leave it open, the crust takes moisture from the environment; if you wrap it, it absorbs moisture from the bread.” Shek, who also supplies bread to 14 other outlets in the city, apart from retailing it from his own establishments, compares baguettes to brun pao, and says that just like the local variety, the French one has a shelf life of mere hours. One way to beat this problem is by giving the unsliced bread a quick toast in the oven at home before eating it.

The humidity and heat also means that bread proves much faster than in more temperate climates, something that is rarely accounted for. “[It is said that] a baker is different from a pastry chef because, in baking, the method of making bread keeps changing,” says Aditi Handa, the owner and baker at The Baker’s Dozen. “Our proofing time (the time it takes for the dough to rise) has become much shorter than it was in December when we opened, because the weather has changed.”

Water Problems
Chef Kelvin Cheung of Ellipsis says he has struggled hard and long to get the pretzels and the brioche at the Colaba restaurant right. “The water is very alkaline here,” he says. “And the minerals are different, so the bread tastes different.” At Indigo Deli, says chef Jaydeep Mukherjee, the water is filtered through reverse osmosis to remove the heavier minerals that don’t allow the bread to rise very well, and can lead to a dense loaf. Even if the water is purified, few people use it at the right temperature. Handa says water at a lower temperature does a better job of hydrating the dough and thus improving texture.

Flour Flaws
India produces some of the best wheat in the world, but not all of it is ideally suited to make leavened bread. The majority of bakers can’t tell the difference between varieties, and the gluten content (which is vital in bread making) can be inconsistent within the same variety. So bakers need to constantly rework their recipes, or find a reliable supplier. “The finest flour with the highest gluten content is from Karnataka, but it is exclusively exported,” says chef Manu Chandra of Olive Bar & Kitchen. “The maida we have here is very pasty, so we need to add gluten, as well as stabilisers and enhancers.” Cheung says that the existing yeast spores and bacteria in Indian flour also affect the taste. In a way, the weather, water and flour of a place are reflected in its bread. Chandra says he’s been trying to replicate pav in Bangalore, and it comes close, but doesn’t taste like the stuff off Mumbai’s streets.

Skill Shortage
Most of the chefs here said that typically when bakery boys come in for a trial session, they ask them to make a few varieties of bread. Typically, the boys will make one kind of dough, and then give it the expected shapes: baguette, focaccia, challah, Pullman loaf, brioche. It’s all the same dough, the only distinguishing factors are the shape and toppings. Mukherjee says he looks for boys from traditional bakeries who know the difference between brun and ladi pav, because they also understand that each dough has its own recipe. There are other ways to mess up perfectly good dough, by over-kneading, under-proving, and over- or undercooking, using the wrong temperature. It’s not easy to make bread without understanding the science of it.

Proofing Preferences
Alain Coumont, the head chef and founder of international Belgian cafe chain Le Pain Quotidien, says that traditional European breads do not use yeast or other additives, and therefore involve a long process of proofing and baking. Here, bakers don’t use starters to prove their bread, choosing to use yeast instead. It may provide a more convenient, quick and reliable rise, but the flavour that a good starter provides cannot be replicated.

Prevalence Of Premixes
Every bakery and restaurant that intends to serve bread gets approached by companies like Ireks, AB Mauri, and Puratos who import premixes and concentrates. When you use these, it is no longer essential to employ skilled people with an understanding of dough or bread making. The premixes are popular, and very prevalent, because they need no weighing, no mixing – in many cases all you add is water and yeast – and they allow for variety (like multi-seeded multi-grained breads, and rye bread). But premixes often contain chemicals that would never be found in artisanal bread, such as stabilisers, preservatives, and improvers (also known as flour treatment agents, they quicken the rising of the bread and improve the workability of the dough). Handa compares using them to making instant “homemade” gulab jamun from a packet.

Brioche at The Table
This rich, cake-like savoury third of their bread basket is so good, you’ll eat both pieces even if it means breaking away from a low-carb diet (and you won’t need butter with it).
Ground Floor, Kalapesi Trust Building, opposite Dhanraj Mahal, below Hotel Suba Palace, Apollo Bunder Marg, Colaba. Tel: 022 2822 5000.

Pain au levain with walnuts and raisins at The Baker’s Dozen
TBD’s bread is perfectly crusty even the next day, especially after a few minutes in the oven. This levain bread is great by itself, or with grilled cheese.
9, Jayant Apartment, Appasaheb Marathe Marg, near Century Bazaar, opposite Mercedes Benz showroom, Prabhadevi. Tel: 022 6743 1313.

Baguette at Indigo Deli
The Delis’ bestseller, this bread is proofed over several hours. It isn’t quite the flavour of Paris, but it’s the closest you’ll get to it in our city.
First Floor, Palladium, Phoenix Mills, Lower Parel. Tel: 022 2498 6262. Also at: 5, Ground Floor, Pheroze Building, Apollo Bunder, near Gateway of India. Tel: 022 6655 1010. Fatima Villa, 29th Road, Pali Naka, Bandra (West). Tel: 022 2643 8100. Clifton Trishul Co-operative Housing Society, off Link Road, Andheri (West). Tel: 022 2633 5709. Level Three, Phase Two, R City Mall, LBS Marg, Ghatkopar. Tel: 022 2518 1010.

Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi is a Mumbai-based food journalist, a contributing editor at Vogue magazine, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York City, and the restaurant reviewer for the Hindustan Times newspaper in Mumbai.