A box from Barmbay is a bouquet of many flours. Brown butter wafts from neatly arranged petals of madeleines; a sparkling cluster of tightly coiled buns fill the room with the scents of cake and cinnamon. Slick, speckled and pitted focaccia blooms with warmth, transporting us to summers in the northern coast of the Mediterranean, scented with lush olive oil and ripe red tomatoes.
Mixologist Ananth Nayak and pastry chef and baker Abhilasha Rajan planned a pandemic project: a fermentation station. Indeed, beverages and bread both improve from being pre-digested by yeast and bacteria; Nayak and Rajan's professions gave them enough combined expertise in both, and lockdowns gave them enough time to experiment. But Barmbay, their baby (flour-child?), is hardly a dabbler's sourdough.
Nayak works with O Pedro customising drinks like peanut butter colada for guests. In May he posted about how 'lockdown was getting to our heads and fermentation is getting to mine'. Homemade sourdough was just about going viral thanks to a certain virus. Nayak was already several steps ahead, making kvass (a fizzy fermented drink from Russia) from toasted wholewheat sourdough, raisins sugar, and starter.
Rajan has worked with Indigo Deli in Palladium, and the Olive group; she was also a baker on the opening team for Toast & Tonic. It is there that she first started working with sourdough. The chef she reported to, Kalyan, brought a starter from a baker in Goa, who in turn had got it from someone in Germany. This starter is said to be 100 years old. “When I am out of town, I get my mom to take care of it and feed it,” Nayak says of her of favourite family of fungi.
Dear reader, this coddled culture is in good hands - you can tell from one bite of Barmbay's bread. A loaf of wholewheat sourdough has a firm but yielding crust, a springy, chewy, perfectly aerated crumb and that tell-tale tang that brings with it a head-filling umami. As does the pillowy laadi pav that must not be wasted around a vada, but must first be had naked and warm, and then patted with butter. Their olive sourdough may be a little low on olives, and the focaccia may be a bit chewy if you leave it un-warmed, but, oh yes, the flavour is all there, enough of it to convince a keto convert to cave.
Rajan and Nayak are dough nuts – they stretch their starter, running with it in all sorts of directions. They imagine cake-like things: fragrant brown butter madeleines that might make Proust of all us; a tahini-chocolate banana bread in which layered flavours reveal themselves turn by turn – bold top notes of banana, chunks of chocolate, underpinnings of savoury sesame paste. Sourdough crackers spiked with sesame, herbs, chillies and salt crystals, are crisp, brown, and astonishing. Some are nutty, some are tingly, some are bright. A plateful could be a party on the palate.
Honestly, a little bit of warmth makes all of Barmbay's flavours and textures blossom. Swedish cinnamon buns (kannelbullar) feel like frosting-free, hefty, cinnamon-dusted, swirled sourdough muffins until they sit for a bit in our air fryer; the heat amplifies the citrus sugar in them and relaxes the bread-y eddies. Kardemummabullar (cardamom bun), are a mouthful – of intense cardamom. Put one layered knot in an oven for five minutes while you pour yourself a cup of tea, sit by a window and find your fika.
A Soothing Barm
Shortly after Nayak posted about his sourdough kvass, he and Rajan decided to launch Barmbay's Instagram page, intending to experiment wildly and in the process introduce ideas about fermentation to their followers. They combined barm, the word used to denote the yeasty froth on fermenting liquor, with bay from our city's old name. Soon friends and followers were texting them with requests. In August, they started taking orders, and a couple of months ago, Barmbay, a curious experiment also became a company.
While Barmbay's Instagram page displays their adventures with wild yeast – fermented tapioca chips, pickled eggs, dosa made from discard – their menu, at the moment, circles around sourdough. They're conscientious caterers, using only paper, card, and twine for packaging, sending sweet notes with each product describing how best to eat and store. They use local flour instead of easy-to-work-with imported high gluten varieties, so that their prices make Barmbay more affordable. They're looking to work with farmers, so they may mill their own grain. They're thinking of experimenting with idli-dosa batters, and properly fermented achaars.
As Christmas approaches, there are plans for panettone, baklava babka, semla with chai-gulkand cream, and mulled-wine kombucha. They're currently working with Hope Bakery to build chorizo pav. “On the weekends we make frittata with it,” says Rajan. We can't think of a more delicious reason to break bread.
Getting there: Visit @barmbay on Instagram, or call 96110 41524. Sourdough (regular, olive, wholewheat) Rs 149 for 400gm; madeleines Rs 120 for six pieces.
bpb orders anonymously and pays for its own meals.
Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in NYC (now International Culinary Centre), lives in Mumbai and writes about food, travel, and design. She’s a contributing editor at Vogue magazine, and her words have also been found in Conde Nast Traveller, Roads & Kingdoms, Scroll.in, Architectural Digest, Saveur, The Guardian, Mint Lounge, and The Hindu, among others. She's crazy about obscure ingredients, and she always knows where to go back for seconds. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at @roshnibajaj.