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How Sunny Park’s Manjari Almal is making sourdough bread mainstream in Kolkata

Almal’s home bakery, Bread & Butter, specialises in artisanal sourdough bread that is free of yeast and chemicals

Priyam Marik | Published 17.08.23, 11:48 AM
Manjari Almal first tried sourdough bread in Australia in 2017, two years before she started Bread & Butter

Manjari Almal first tried sourdough bread in Australia in 2017, two years before she started Bread & Butter

Manjari Almal/Bread & Butter

If Jesus could turn water into wine, what could he have done with water and flour? Sourdough would definitely have been an option, needing no miracle, either. Just some precision and patience. As it turns out, sourdough bread was made long before Jesus, almost 3,000 years to be specific, in ancient Egypt. From there, it became a staple across Europe (quite literally), throughout the Greek and Roman Empires, until the arrival of yeast made the leavening of bread (making the dough rise) simpler and faster. As a result, sourdough was marginalised for centuries, except for pockets in the West such as San Francisco, before making a quiet comeback in the health-conscious times of the present.

“Sourdough is slowly catching on again, but a lot of people still don’t know what it is or what its benefits are. The fact that sourdough is the healthiest way to consume bread is still largely a secret, especially in Kolkata,” says Manjari Almal, owner and chief breadmaker at Bread & Butter, a home bakery in Ballygunge’s Sunny Park. Manjari has been making bread at home ever since she got married and moved from Jaipur to the City of Joy 24 years ago. But it was during a trip to Australia in 2017 that she first learnt about sourdough. “It was so delicious and healthy, and I knew I wanted to make it right away. When my breadmaker at home started malfunctioning, I got extra motivation to try it out. After a few attempts and some crash courses on YouTube, I finally cracked it!” recollects Manjari, who started Bread & Butter in 2019, realising the need for Kolkatans to eat bread that is low on gluten and better for their gut.

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Sourdough bread most in demand in Ballygunge, Alipore, New Town and Salt Lake

Bread & Butter also offers sourdough for pizza breads

Bread & Butter also offers sourdough for pizza breads

According to Manjari, it takes close to 24 hours to make a good loaf of sourdough bread. The long fermentation process, which results in the sour, acidic and chewy product, lends sourdough its characteristic complexity. “It’s also what makes sourdough a probiotic as well as prebiotic,” adds Manjari, whose bakery has been endorsed by nutritionists such as Ritesh Bawri and Luke Coutinho.

Working out of her kitchen with a team of five, Manjari supplies bread to all parts of Kolkata and occasionally ships to other cities, too. Extending the shelf life of the bread during shipping is a challenge, which is why Manjari does not prefer it, unless there are bulk orders that can be transported via train inside a few hours. Within the city, most of her customers come from Ballygunge, Alipore, New Town and Salt Lake. Earlier, she would tie up with grocery chains in Kolkata to sell her bread, but on understanding how they end up stocking the bread for longer than the recommended time, Manjari stopped. “I’m happy running things from my home. At least I know I have full control over the quality of what I produce,” explains Manjari.

‘My sourdough bread won’t make you hungry for at least four hours’

With over 45 types of sourdough — everything from cheddar cheese to olive, from zataar to ragi — available for order (online purchases can be made here), Manjari gets a wide range of customers across her typical week. For instance, there is a 90-year-old woman in Deshapriya Park who stays alone and wants whole wheat sourdough everytime she calls or reaches out through Facebook. There is a customer who orders millet sourdough every four days, while another is a fan of the one with the coriander chilli flavour. The Italian options are popular among children, and Manjari herself enjoys the cream cheese and the peri peri varieties. “I actually love everything, otherwise I wouldn’t have it on the menu,” she clarifies.

When My Kolkata tried some classic sourdough at Manjari’s home, what was striking was how soothing the sourness was on the palate. The crunch of the bread felt more satisfying, as if the ears, too, had picked up on the authenticity of artisanal sourdough. It was also far more filling, something Manjari corroborates when she says that “the average commercially available bread, which invariably has hidden sugar, can keep you full for two to three hours. My sourdough bread won’t make you hungry for at least four hours”. Easier to digest and far less taxing on one’s blood sugar levels, sourdough bread is a necessity in today’s urban lifestyle, feels Manjari.

‘What I’m providing is made from the finest ingredients, most of which are locally sourced’

There is, however, a sticking point when it comes to sourdough. The price. Manjari gets it right away and is unapologetic in justifying it: “My breads start at Rs 325, and I haven’t lowered my prices at any point. I understand that the market is used to much cheaper options, including for diluted sourdough, but what I’m providing is made from the finest ingredients, most of which are locally sourced.” The natural extension to Manjari’s argument is that normal bread comes with a concealed health tax, which, in the long run, can be far more damaging on the pocket than the few extra hundred rupees spent on sourdough.

Eventually, Manjari is confident that as Kolkatans pay more attention to their bodies, sourdough will gain in visibility and consumption. After all, she knows better than most that sourdough may take its time, but when done well, it is bound to rise.

Last updated on 17.08.23, 12:16 PM
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