This is what unfolds in the haloed halls of Byculla’s 100-year-old bakery, American Express, where the Christmas cake and pudding are synonymous with old Bombay memories and a generosity rare to find
Young Nicholas Ross enjoying baking and his grandparents Ross and Lilia Carvalho
The elves at American Express Bakery’s (AEB) Byculla kitchen have been working in overdrive for the past three months. The sweet smell of cinnamon, clove and nutmeg... quite truly the smell of Christmas wafts through the doors of the 114-year-old bakery which stands its ground in a wrought iron building called AEB House. People passing, on the busy Mirza Ghalib Marg stop to catch the heavenly whiff. The air is heavy with the aroma of traditional cakes and puddings.
Hand-picked dry fruits and fresh fruits are marinated in a special house blend of ground spices and rum for three months, allowing them to mature and absorb the flavours for that lasting delicious first bite. These are now being added to the cake batter every day as small batches of the traditional plum cake and pudding are prepared to stack on the shelves.
Founded in 1908 on Grant Road, AEB expanded to branches in Byculla, Bandra, Santa Cruz and Colaba, the last of which shut down. Pic/Shadab Khan
“Both recipes have passed down five generations,” says Nicholas Ross, 21, the oldest grandson of 80-year-old Ross and Lilia Carvalho, who have been helming AEB for decades. “The recipe has not been altered because we don’t want to mess with perfection,” he adds cheekily. Ross has worked at AEB during Christmas for a decade and shares his grandfather’s passion for cooking. They both leave the cleaning up for his avo (grandmother) and mother, he says.
The first advertisement that AEB published, and which still flanks the old walls of the structure, dates back to 1908, making it a milestone year for the family. Started by Francesco Carvalho at Falkland Road, Grant Road, it was called American Express owing to the speedy delivery of its goods to American cruise ships docking in Bombay. It was renamed AEB later and relocated to Byculla in 1935. “We are fortunate that our forefathers spent years perfecting the recipe and handed it down to us,” he adds. Their all-time hit is the traditional plum cake which although a Christmas specialty is also on offer around the year because customers can’t get enough of it. A kilo of the cake is priced at R1,060 and the plum pudding for R550. “Customers say we make them nostalgic with every bite. If we can give them this joy all year round, why not?”
American Express Bakery’s Christmas plum cakes and plum puddings are pieces of art made using an over 100-year-old unchanged recipe passed down generations. Preparations for Yuletide season begin months in advance
It takes a team of five to prepare the cakes, all of them trained by the Carvalhos. Handheld at every step of the process, some days it takes the bakers up to 10 hours to ready a batch. The minimum is five hours.
But comparisons of their plum pudding to the one available at London’s Harrods, makes it worth the hard work. Ross says, “The proof is in the pudding. All our Christmas goodies sell out every year. Customers tell us that our Christmas fares are ‘tradition’ gracing the tables of Mumbaikars for five generations. For the past few years, they order and arrange for couriers to be delivered to various parts of India. Our announcement of the plum cake and plum pudding hitting the shelves marks the start of Christmas celebrations for many. We have loyal, old time customers who still reminisce about their childhood by buying our plum cake every year; it’s a family tradition.” This, the young man calls privilege. “It is why we still ‘knead your needs’,” he smiles, referring to the brand’s tagline.
Happiness, however ,comes with its own trials and tribulations. Ross recalls a time when Ross Carvalho had to maintain AEB quality even at a time when ingredients in the market were affected due to conditions out of his control. “All our ingredients are locally sourced. There was a year when the quality of flour was not too good due to excessive rain and poor pest control. Yet he offered a quality loaf to the customer’s table. This is not something you can learn from a textbook. It comes with experience. All of us in the family have learnt from him,” he says.
In addition to regular fare, AEB launches a specially curated Christmas menu during the busiest time of the year. “It’s meticulously executed and it’s a joy for everyone in the family to help, including the seven-year-old, sitting around the table moulding marzipan shapes while listening to Christmas carols.” Ross says that although exhausted from all that goes into the bakery during this time, Christmas dinner at the Carvalho home is still served with all the bells and whistles of a Goan feast. “My avo, Lilia Carvalho, is in her 80s, but she makes sure all our workers at the bakery are fed well during this busy time by cooking dinner for them the week leading up to Christmas. She continues to do this at her age and we all struggle to keep up with her.”
A Carvalho family tradition of setting alight their Christmas pudding. It takes only a dollop of brandy, one warm plum pudding and a match, making it a piece de resistance at the family’s Christmas table
The motto, Ross says, has been to serve the community. He remembers offering bread to anyone who walked in during the Mumbai riots of 1992-1993. “Even today, we donate over 3,000 loaves a month to those in need. Our staff comes from all over India, and we try to help their children get to school. My grandparents rarely talk about this in public. It’s from them that we have all learnt to make a difference, big and small.”
AEB’s X’mas menu
. Dundee cake
. Fruit mince pie
. Coconut toffee
. Guava cheese
. Pawn pattice
. Lemon cake
. Apple pie
. Stollen bread with marzipan
. Portuguese sweet bread
. Christmas cookies box
. Stuffed roast chicken