Watercolour: Bakeries cling to comforting traditions of bread in troubled times

June 4, 2020

The aroma of oven-fresh bread as you approach a bakery's entrance. The anticipation as you see shelves stacked with loaves, buns, pastries and cakes. The allure of chomping down on a crusty sourdough sandwich or warm, flaky croissant.

Bakeries have an abiding hold on many people's hearts, even at a time when interest in home baking has intensified. Crafting quarantine loaves has become fashionable - to master new culinary skills, find therapeutic pleasure in one own's fruitful work, and combat commercial bread shortages.

But that hasn't shaken the popularity of bakeries. "Whatever happens in the future, you'll still need bakeries as a physical store,"  says Jay Tung, who owns Mont Kiara's nearly decade-old Watercolour Bakery and Cafe. "Some people come here simply because they want to feel and smell the bakery."

Like other businesses, these three months have been a whirlwind for Watercolour, but its sales have sufficed to keep it afloat. It banks increasingly on deliveries, with an online store at watercolour.easy.co that offers everything a bread lover desires.

Watercolour's range spans classics like rustic ciabatta and slow-fermented country brown bread to intriguing creations like sprouted organic quinoa sourdough and butterfly pea multigrain bread, baked with unbleached French flour and German rye. Also available: Wholemeal scones, banana toffee tarts, five-spice butter cookies, house-made strawberry rose jam and more.

Even passionate home bakers would be hard-pressed to replicate the repertoire. “You have to buy the ingredients, do the preparation, baking and cleaning up," Jay notes. "Essentially, this is quite troublesome, so most people would rather save time by buying from bakeries, unless it's something they can't get there or they can't tolerate certain ingredients."

Watercolour's sourdough takes at least 16 hours from the folding and resting of the initial dough to the final baking. Even its most basic bread requires two hours. With no rushing or skipping steps, the work requires plenty of patience and discipline to ensure a satisfying product.

When people come in to chat with Watercolour's crew about baking, it's typically professional bakers and chefs. Still, Jay is happy to share his knowledge with customers - Watercolour began with a four-member team with no experience in baking, learning from trial and error.

“If someone insists they want to make their own bread, we would encourage them. You can control your own choice of ingredients, so it’s good for you. But you must have persistence and consistency.”

The number of customers who visit Watercolour to purchase baking ingredients has increased slightly, but that's still only once every two or three weeks, with people who feel comfortable to enquire if flour, butter or even eggs are for sale. Ingredients like French sea salt and Mauritian natural, unrefined Muscovado sugar are also available on Watercolour's online store.

Recent restrictions have stalled plans for baking classes. "We want to hold workshops, but we'll have to put it on hold because of social distancing. You need a minimum of 10 to 20 people to conduct these classes," Jay says.

In recent weeks, Watercolour's regulars have steadily returned, taking their favourite seat for breakfast and browsing for bread. Jay points to this as proof that the sensory appeal of Watercolour in its current incarnation endures, even with an online store.

“We're very old-fashioned. We believe that people want to look at the product, feel the product, enjoy the scent of the atmosphere. When you go through our menu online, it’s too virtual," he says. "We handle a lot of customers, not just Malaysians but from all around the world. Some of them walk all the way, maybe even one kilometre from their homes, to visit us for a feeling of the bakery."

Reporting by EDKL writer Aiman Azri. Interview excerpts were edited for brevity. Images are courtesy of Watercolour.

Watercolour is one of nearly 250 restaurants and retailers on our online store for vouchers and subscriptions. Shop at eatdrinkkl.com/store

This is the 16th part in our series on how people in Malaysian restaurants, cafes and bars are confronting their current challenges.

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