Did you know this is Coonoor's best kept secret?

How Crown changed the culinary scene of the hill station in Tamil Nadu

By Anjaly Thomas

Published: Thu 7 Apr 2022, 7:22 PM

There is a bakery, warm and yeasty,

One desires bread and one desires varkey…

A visit to Coonoor in the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu, India, begins and ends with clichés. But if pushed into picking two favourite reasons to visit, I’d pick the bread and aroma of eucalyptus.

But the real reason is the bread. It wasn’t as though I’d not expected changes to this hill station, but changes had come fast. Three decades ago, it was less chaotic but fortunately, when I arrived, John Sullivan’s Coonoor, once a sanatorium of Europeans fleeing the heat of Madras (now Chennai), was experiencing a salubrious weather and somewhere between the chaos and confusion, a wind blew, bringing with it the aroma of eucalyptus — the second reason for its popularity.

To my young mind, Coonoor had been the home bread and ginger biscuits. Adulthood influenced that sentiment and pushed me into finding why Coonoor was stuck in my memory. The answer was to be found in a loaf of bread.

A peek into history

In 1819, John Sullivan, the founder of Nilgiris, built the first house in Ootacamund (Ooty, now Udhagamandalam), referring to it as a place in the hills with a climate akin to English summer. Promptly, the East India Company established the town as a summer retreat for Europeans, built the All-Saints church (today over 165 years old), a post and telegraph office, a European general store, a library and a music depot and nine decades later, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway. The Church itself is among the best maintained churches of India with its dark wood, vaulted roofing and stained-glass windows replicating the charming ambience of an English countryside. But sometime between the establishment of the Church and the railway, a bakery came to be. It came to be called Crown.

The Crown of the Nilgiris

Coonoor’s market is alive with fresh vegetables and sounds of bargain. Motorbikes and pedestrians jostle for the right of way on Mount Road, the town’s arterial road that begins at the bus station Clock Tower and winds its way up the hill to Upper Coonoor. Small eateries flanking the street contend for the attention of camera-wielding tourists. And suddenly I am overcome with emotions. I am seeking a memory of childhood.

I am sure I will find it despite the congestion that threatens to... Then it comes — the aroma of fresh bread and buns, from somewhere to my right, conquering the smell of smoke. I inhale, letting the aroma of yeast seep into my senses before following it to a row of cars hiding Coonoor’s biggest secret. Thirty years had not changed the smell and as I inch my way around the taxis, I wish it never does.

I stand in front of the bakery, looking up at the mess of electric wires. The yellowing one-storey, tile-roofed bakery announcing its business in bold red is a testament to Coonoor’s obsession for good bread. Its year of inception is written in small letters on the bottom of its logo which resembles a crown. ESTD:1880.

I do the math. Crown Bakery is 142 years old. If that is not reason enough to cheer, the smells grow stronger. It is time to enter. At the door, I scrape my shoes on the iron scraper for no real reason. That object has served its purpose and remains largely undisturbed today. Soldiers scraping mud off their boots is a thing of the past.

I stand at the centre of the bakery, close my eyes and breathe deeply, trying to revive memories. There were ginger biscuits in a bell jar to my left and cakes to my right… Would it be the same now?

Someone bumps into me. It is a middle-aged man with a short grey beard putting down a box of bread. “Nothing has changed,” I blurt out. “Not even the colour of bread.”

Having put the box down and opened the covers, the man replies. “You are right. We have been keeping everything just like it was 142 years ago. Bread is part of our heritage and we must protect this heritage at all costs.” That man is Sheriff, the present owner.

My olfactory senses are overwhelmed. I stare at the bread, overjoyed at the deep brown crust made possible only by a wood-fired oven. From the corner of my eyes, I see trays of cookies in the glass case placed there to cool down. Then comes the distinctive whiff of caramelised sugar and flour. It is heavenly.

Once upon a time, this bakery looked out at church spires and grassy hills. The clatter of horses meant the arrival of customers, who often timed their visit with the arrival of fresh bread. The history of Crown Bakery is a mystery. In 1880, G. Mohammed Sheriff, for unknown reasons, arrived from Hyderabad to bake bread in the hills. The then unnamed bakery produced the region’s first bread and the owner went around the hills delivering his goods. Story has it that some of his cake and biscuits soon travelled to Britain on a ship and a British princess, moved by its taste, christened it Crown Bakery — befitting the empire. The name stuck.

After Mohammed, his son Abdul Sattar carried on the business, supplying bread and cakes to the British barracks at nearby Wellington. Unfortunately, there is nothing by way of written history to back the claim. Everything is handed down by word of mouth.

Sheriff tells me proudly of the visit of Mahatma Gandhi on February 2, 1934. But it was Sattar’s son Basha who transitioned the bakery into Independent India. His stories are replete with facts mixed with anecdotes he’d heard from his parents or grandparents. A horn blares. “Once upon a time my forefathers played football in the street outside. It was quiet then.” It is the only time I see his expression change.

I want to linger. I order a piece of honey-cake, literally the jewel in the Crown and continue with my questions. “We do not have a written recipe,” says Sheriff. “Everything was passed down by word of mouth.” This only means I am never going to be able to replicate the taste at home.

Next, I ask to sample another Coonoor favourite. Varkey. This layered, slightly sweet, flaky biscuit is not exclusive to Crown Bakery, but like the bakery’s history, its origin is shrouded in mystery. Sheriff laughs away this comparison. “There are many versions of its origins,” he says. “But the most popular one is about a baker named Varkey, who covered up his fiasco by rolling the dough into a ball…”

I am drawn to the old walls brightened by ticking clocks from WWII. The German-made fragile vintage glass jars on the shelf remain out of reach — like old times.

Before leaving, I buy two loaves of bread. “Leave the cover open to let it cool,” Sheriff instructs me. I leave on the assurance that his recipes will never change and there will always be fresh bread whenever I return.

Unfortunately, there is nothing at all to tell tourists that Crown Bakery has not only helped define Coonoor’s culinary culture, but made the neighbourhood smell better too.

Further up the road from the bakery was my next stop — the place famous for Wellington Porotta, a minced meat-filled, egg-coated fried flatbread of unknown origin. When it arrived, I wondered how it was ever possible that we’d eaten more than one at one go. Today, it seems good for two.

Forgotten by its creators and not in entirety conquered by anyone else, Coonoor continues to live in dignity.


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