The artisan's formula

4 min read
11 Jan 2018
4 min read
1807 words
How Norbu Shrestha, who started out as a baker of Tibetan bread, today makes perhaps the best artisan European breads in town

Mornings at Pumpernickel are a bustling affair. The bakery is almost always full of people coming in for a hearty breakfast. Most of them arrive at seven, almost immediately after the doors open. Some people grab a quick breakfast, something light--maybe a croissant and an espresso--before going about their day; some people spend hours in the bakery's patio, enjoying a leisurely brunch of hashed browns, eggs, toast and sausages, with a cup of roasted ground coffee.

To churn out all the baked goodies that Pumpernickel offers, preparations start at as early as four am every day. While the rest of Kathmandu sleeps, the bakers at Pumpernickel are already busy working--popping in tray after tray of freshly kneaded bread, croissants, cinnamon rolls, quiches and tarts into their oven, readying themselves for the customers who come pouring in throughout the day.

For nearly four decades, Pumpernickel Bakery has been operating at Paryatan Marg, one of the busiest streets of Thamel, and continuing to grow its base of customers--both foreigners and Nepalis. The bakery (which is named after a type of German rye-bread) has everything a bakery needs to become successful--spot-on location, a loyal customer base and a selection of delicious bakes. Its bread and baked goods, say regulars, are some of the best in Nepal, and even on par with the offerings of the better bakeries in other parts of the world. And all this is a result of one man's vision and unbending resolve to transform himself from baking Tibetan breads to baking the finest European breads and cakes.  

Norbu Shrestha, the owner/mastermind behind all the formulae used at Pumpernickel, was just an ambitious teenager fresh out of school when he decided to start the bakery. It was the '70s, and Kathmandu was starting to see quite a bit of European backpackers/trekkers trickling in. Shrestha's parents owned one of the first few restaurants in Boudha, and most of the customers who frequented the establishment comprised foreigners looking for fresh bread. The restaurant only made Tibetan bread (a pan-fried flatbread), and even that sold like hot cakes--because the foreigners just couldn't live without bread. Shrestha, who used to help run the restaurant, came to realise that there was a dire need for good bakeries in Kathmandu. It didn't take him much convincing to take up baking as a profession, and he soon set up his own bakery in the heart of Thamel.

"By the time we set up Pumpernickel, I had learned how to bake brown bread. I built a small firewood oven, where I would bake the bread, erected a small bamboo shack, no bigger than a small shed, with only a few stools for furniture, and got to working," says Shrestha. After he'd perfected the art of making brown bread, Shrestha, with help from a German friend, started learning to bake other types of bread. By this time, he was completely immersed in perfecting the art of baking. "I knew soon enough that baking was something I could do my entire life. People looked down on me for wanting to become a baker; because they thought baking was mindless, menial work. But their views never affected me. I was completely fascinated with baking," says Shrestha. In order to learn more about his art, he travelled, many times, to Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the US. He worked as an apprentice at local bakeries in these countries, and honed his artisan-baking skills.  

The bake-room at Pumpernickel is where all the magic happens. Here, trays of leavened dough go into the oven and out come rolls of sturdy boules, crusty baguettes, golden brown ciabatta and buttery chocolate croissants. The bake-room/kitchen, set at the back of the bakery, is equipped with a rotary rack oven, a dough roller/ sheeter, a reach-in refrigerator, a worktop refrigerator and a couple of mixers. The rotary rack oven, as the name suggests, has a rack that rotates--to ensure that the items being baked all receive the same amount of heat from the oven's heating coils.

Pumpernickel's goodies range from breads (white, brown, multigrain sandwich loaves and baguettes) to pastries (cheese croissant, chocolate croissant, vanilla roll, apple carree, apple flan) and cakes (mocha cake, marble cake, tiramisu, cheesecake, banana bread, etc). They also have a few salad, soup and burger options. The most popular items on the menu are still their perfectly created sandwiches: Pumpernickel was the first place in Kathmandu that served yak-cheese sandwiches, a popular item amongst trekkers who put up at Thamel. It is their sandwiches--made with great bread--that put Pumpernickel on the map many years ago. Today, along with the famed yak-cheese sandwiches, Pumpernickel also serves a whole host of other sandwiches--from the traditional BLT to the classic ham and cheese.

Pumpernickel encourages customers to customise their sandwiches: they get to choose from ham, tuna, eggs, goat cheese, etc, ask for a bed of lettuce, tomato slices, capsicum slices and onion slices, with some homemade mayonnaise, and pick a bread. Most go with the sandwich bread and mini baguettes: their crumb is soft and fluffy and slightly sour, while the crust is nice and toasty. The sandwich bread is also sprinkled with some oats, to give it some substance. Pumpernickel's bakers are exceedingly meticulous when making their sandwich bread: they stick to a stringent formula for creating the dough (which is made from mixing whole-wheat flour, salt, water and yeast). This dough is then fermented (which is when the yeast converts the sugar that is present in the flour into gas and alcohol; this process also gives the bread character, a delicious flavour and a nice rise). "Making bread is a process that takes a lot of time--and patience--and a lot of meticulousness and precision. That's all there is to making great bread, actually," says Shrestha.

When Shrestha started out, he thought he was getting into a relatively less demanding business. Little did he know that baking was an art that entailed paying attention to the smallest of details. Over the years, it's been his thoroughness and the drive to perfect his craft that have turned Shrestha into one of the best bakers in town. To ensure quality, all the ingredients--all locally sourced--brought into the bakery are inspected by Shrestha himself. He sources goat cheese (for his sandwiches) from Chitlang, apples (for his Apple Flan) from Mustang, potatoes (for his hash browns) from Solukhumbu.

He is also always open to comments and recommendations. "I never take any advice for granted. I've had guests come in and advise me regarding the most minute details of my baking process. I absolutely appreciate such input. For these ideas have helped me improve my craft and gotten Pumpernickel to where it is today," says Shrestha. That willingness of Shrestha to continually grow as a baker--and his unwillingess to compromise--is why Pumpernickel is today regarded as the bread mecca of Kathmandu.

Norbu's sourdough

Pumpernickel was the first bakery that came up with sourdough breads in Nepal. Often considered the holy grail of baking, sourdough breads are loved by many--for their health benefits, but mostly for their unique, mildly sour flavour. But they can be quite tricky to bake.

Typically made from wheat flour, sourdough bread is made by fermenting dough with natural bacteria (called lactobacilli) and wild yeast found in the air. Wild yeast take a little more time to start working than commercial yeast, so sourdough breads are normally mixed, shaped and baked over the course of a day, or even multiple days. And this process of natural fermentation is what brings out the more complex, nuanced flavours in sourdough bread.

Sourdough bread is a starter-based bread, and it is made by combining a bit of starter dough with fresh dough. Before you make sourdough bread, you need to make the starter dough. A sourdough starter is made by combining flour and water, and then letting it sit for several days. After a day or two, bubbles (owing to the gas and alcohol being released) will start to form in the starter, indicating that the wild yeast is starting to become active. After the starter is ready, you take some of it and mix with flour and salt. Then you fold or knead the dough; and then let it proof (which means you let the dough to rise and form its shape in a container). The sourdough is then ready to be baked in the oven.

However, there are many variables that affect the quality of sourdough bread--from the kind of flour to the amount of dough and starter used, to the weather on the day. It takes a lot of practice to perfect the art of the sourdough.