It was a sunny Sunday afternoon close to fourteen years back.
I bid farewell to my batch mates from work as they headed back to Calcutta after a two week training. I stayed back. I was supposed to remain in Mumbai for three months. Which became six. This was the first time I was away from home. I had left my heart behind. I was lonely.
I hailed an auto at Juhu to go back to my PG digs at Bandra. I felt very low. On a whim I told the auto guy to take me to the beach at Bandra. That was my first evening at Bandra. Well second if you count a trip we made the weekend before that to go to Mumbai’s first, and then only, McDonalds and Baskins Robbins outlets. I hadn’t seen the ‘beach’ at Bandra till then. My auto driver took me to my destination. I was perplexed by the dirt road, the pebbles and boulders, the courting couples, the barren stretch, the still waters. That was Bandra’s Bandstand. Well before the Promenade. Well before the King Khan made it his home.
Deflated, I walk back. Down what I would later learn was Hill Road, On the way I saw what looked like a confectionery shop. I stopped to read the board outside the shop. There were promises of pies, puddings and sandwiches. I didn’t step in. It was the late 90s. And after years of making cheese sandwiches at home by making a cube of cheese last a week, or chicken sandwiches with left over liver and chicken bits from the Sunday curry, twenty odd Rupees seemed a very high sum of money for a sandwich.
Fourteen years is a long time. And you really grow up only when you stay away from home. Over the years American Express Bakery (Amex) no longer seemed forbidding. When I went in on Friday I noted the current price of its sandwiches. Around 38 Rs or less than 1 US, for some pretty good simple wholesome mutton or Hawaiian chicken or salami sandwiches around, is the best value that you will get in town. As are the two pillow like bread rolls for Rs 12, patties and quiches for around Rs 20 or so, crusty French bread at Rs 10 (!!!!) and loaves at less than Rs 20. Gourmet quality bread and bakes at extremely reasonable prices is what sets Amex apart.
I got talking to a couple sitting on the bench in the shop munching on a Focaccia bread. “Their sun dried tomato and basil bread is their best’” said the girl to me. Her passion for food and willingness to express an opinion on food made it easy to guess that she was Bengali. Poulomi is reasonably new to Mumbai as I was fourteen years back. She was just joined by her husband, Amir. A Kashmiri. A mixed marriage as you would tend to expect in the melting pot of Mumbai.
Poulomi and Amir loved American Express as did most of the customers across demographics, skin colour, age and gender, who came to the shop for the hour that I was there. It was that sort of place. Warm, soft and buttery as its bakes. Many were speaking to the lady at the counter. ‘Aunty at Amex’ as we knew her for years. Mrs Carvalho.
She and her family owns Amex. She loves to talk and will tell you stories in between dishing out change at the counter. Yet, she said she prefers to be behind the scenes. She told me that her husband Ross, and her sons Emil and Yvan, were the ones who run the show. “Cooking runs in the blood of the men in the family”. Mrs Carvalho said that the only dishes she cooks are paya or trotters, oxtail and mulligatawny soups. She was a bit nonplussed when I asked her for her address on hearing this.
Mrs C pointed out to the two staff members in the shop. “The boys do all the work. I just help them” said the grand dame of American Express Bakery. She was very clear that any photos on articles should be those of those of the men. “I am shy”, said this kind chatty lady as she graciously allowed me to click a silhouette of hers.
Having married into the family, Mrs Carvalho was a bit hazy about the history of the bakery. She knew that her sons were the fourth generation of the family running the business. That the Bakery had started as Wiseman and Company somewhere at Colaba and then became ‘American Express Bakery’ in the late 1920s. Apparently because they used to deliver bread to American war ships docked at Mumbai at ‘express’ speeds those days. She showed me some of the old advertisements of the shop. Copied and printed from newspapers by customers.
It seems that the American Express Bakery ruled the packaged bread market till Britannia bread was launched at Mumbai. Amex apparently used to provide bread to the posh clubs of Mumbai till they set up their own bakeries. American Express today runs out of two branches. The one at the headquarters at Byculla, where the bakery is, and this one at Bandra’s Hill Road. The product range has changed with time and now they have rye bread, brown bread, multi grain bread, soya bread, tomato and basil bread, muffins, whole wheat crackers.
“People are now health conscious. But we don’t use brown bread for the sandwiches as they don’t taste as well the next day” said Mrs C.
I told her about my love for the prawn patties that they stock during Christmas.
“But where do you get prawns these days?” came the answer.
I told her about how much my mom in law liked the quiche that we took from Amex last week and how my favourite quiche was the one that I had outside Geneva station.
She smiled and said “our quiches are good but I cannot say whether it will be as good as what you have had at Switzerland.”
I told Mrs Carvalho about how much I liked their chocolate cookies and how I had one every morning with my coffee.
"You need to be careful. Well not you but women need to be careful of their figures.” she said.
I told her about how I came running back so that I could catch her at the shop.
"Running? Well, that's exercise. Good " She broke into a smile.
The Carvalhos don't live at Bandra.
"Next to where Gandhiji once stayed. " said Mrs C referring to her residence at Mumbai's August Kranti Marg. She wakes up at 5 every morning and goes for her walk and yoga by 5.30 AM. The lady does take her fitness seriously. She gets back by 6.30 AM as "then you are surrounded by people discussing food, recipes their children's schools at the park which disturbs my walking."
Before leaving, I asked Mrs C a question which has bugged me since I was twelve years old at Calcutta.
Why are chicken patties in India reasonably bland and continental while mutton patties are more spicy and have masala?
Mrs Carvalho broke into a smile and said "that's because they used to be called mutton curry puffs earlier. wonder why they have stopped calling that."
Ah, well. One of life's mysteries solved.
I have often quoted the song Hotel California and said that Bandra is a place where you can “check in but never leave”.
Well, the Goan owned American Express Bakery, with its honest, heart warming and soul satisfying fare of sandwiches that remind you of home, incredibly soft dinner rolls, bewitching cookies and lemon cakes, rich plum cakes, buttery heavenly patties and quiches, its simple uncomplicated date and walnut cakes and chocolate chip tea cakes, can take part of the blame for this addiction.
I will leave the last word to Mrs Carvalho who pointed out that the American Express Bakery head quarters is one of the stops in the Mumbai heritage walk.
May the heritage of American Express Bakery remain as fresh as its bakes.