“Some 80 percent of a loaf of bread consists of nothing more than air. But air is not nothing.
In bread, it is where much of the flavor resides, and is the reason bread is so much more aromatic than porridge. The air trapped in the alveoli conducts bread’s aromas–the two hundred or so volatile compounds that have been identified in a well-baked sourdough–to the back of the mouth, where they then drift up into the nasal passages and, by means of retronasal olfaction, reach the brain.
Symbolically, too, air is not nothing. Air elevates our food, in every sense, raises it from the earthbound subsistence of gruel to something so fundamentally transformed as to hint at human and even divine transcendence. Air lifts food up out of the mud and so lifts us, dignifying both the food and its eaters.”
Michael Pollan, ‘Cooked’, on bread.
Every morning at about seven, or as soon as it was seemly, one of us walked down the road, judiciously ducking the cowpats, to join the line at Sevros’ bakery.
You smelled the bread as you closed the gate behind you; like the soft breezes from the river, the scents carried. Poyi, pao, soft, white-crumbed rolls that brought the village out to stop at the brothers’ bakery before Church. One morning as the monsoon rains poured down, I raced into the bakery, my head down, the umbrella held above my head like a shield, and collided with an angel. She had shiny iridiscent wings fastened to the back of her gold-embroidered sash, and kiss-curls had been teased out to frame her face; her dress was pink and gauzy, with sequins spangling the swinging skirts. Inside that room, with the old, dark ovens, and the steam rising from the chicken and beef patties, from the pillowed lines of pao, the rain drumming on the tiled roof, among the matrons in their stiff Sunday dresses, she seemed like a remnant from a fable I had entered by accident.
Sebastian and Nelson were kind to us outsiders; we hadn’t known that most Goa bakeries follow the rhythms of the baking cycle, and–city people!–had thought Sevros would be open all day, like Delhi’s fancy cake shops. But the family rose at 3 am to wrestle with the dough, yeasty, as alive as a person, and to cook the mince for the patties, so that all would be ready for customers at seven; by seven-thirty, their van had trundled onto the ferry to make the river crossing from the village into the big town. It was understood that they would rest from their labours after church, and that the bakery would be open (in a token way) briefly during the afternoon. It was also understood that no one in their right mind would want good bread except within a few hours of the baking.
Those rolls, fragrant with the mysterious essence of bread–something to do with the wheat and the water, the rains and the wind rustling through the jackfruit trees and the family’s care with the loaves all mixed together in benediction–were all we needed for breakfast, along with strong fresh-brewed coffee and the blessings of the egrets and the little swifts who swooped across our line of vision, dipping their wings as they passed our balcony. The aroma rising from the white crumb under that pale-gold crust nourished us, as much as the taste.
There is plenty of bread in Delhi, and good bread too:
And sometimes I’ll pay the exorbitant prices that Delhi’s bakers charge for their flaxseed loaves and their flaky croissants, for a dark dense loaf of rye, reasoning that it’s the same price as cakes and pastries, for which I do not have a fondness. It’s easy to find great rotis and naans in this city; good bread needs to be hunted down.
But the best bread is always the fresh loaves from the small bakeries, the ones from the tin-box man who used to come around on his cycle in a Delhi that was sleepier and a lot less angry than this present city, the chollah plaits once found at Nahoum’s in Calcutta, the Irani loaves and Bombay’s just-baked paus. I miss Sevros’ s Rs 7/- paos and poyis, and the gift for one monsoon of having a bakery right down the road from home.