Ebenezer Scrooge is a miserly misanthrope in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol who would snarl ‘Bah! Humbug’ to festive treats and traditions. But Ebenezer Giftalin from Delhi is a sweet and friendly home-chef whose only obsessions are bakes and cakes. “My folks thought I would be a gift to the people unlike Uncle Scrooge,” chuckles the 32-year-old bread maker, whose parents never imagined their south-Indian-boy-with-an-engineering-degree would make a vocation out of selling sourdough on his cycle. But sourdough and cycle it was to be. And Ebbie, as he is popularly known, is steadily pedalling his way into the hearts and tummies of Delhi residents averse to industrial loaves.
But bicycling and baking? What could possibly link the two? Ebbie draws multiple parallels between them. “They are both slightly obsessive, I suspect,” he says. “Even with a common masochistic streak. You are often up at odd hours, going at it for hours at a time, with nothing to distract you except your thoughts.” Then he stops making an effort to think hard. “About 70 per cent of my meals over the last year have included some amount of bread and butter. I need the exercise,” he says.
But there is always a simpler explanation. Ebbie—a techie who grew disenchanted with his IT jobs—has been a biker and baker ever since he can remember. But never did the twain meet until he moved to Delhi two-and-a-half years ago to work in a start-up. He was directionless and unemployed after quitting his job there when a friend introduced him to an Australian sourdough starter. When Ebbie used a bit of the starter to make bread, he was not prepared for the outcome. The bread was so much more graceful, complex and flavoursome. It was a work of art. The next day he got the full starter kit from his friend in exchange for spare tubes for his punctured bicycle. Since then, it has been his bread and butter, quite literally. “I don’t think I ever had any decent sourdough before I started baking it,” says Ebbie.
Now, he bakes 100 loaves of sourdough bread every week and delivers them on his Scott Speedster. In his fluorescent, high-visibility body suit, with helmet, goggles, rucksack and fitness tracker, he looks the part of a bike racer. But the luggage space is stuffed with parcels of whole-wheat sourdough loaves, brioche, monkey bread and chocolate chip sea-salt cookies. He bakes them in the morning in the cramped kitchen of his one BHK apartment in south Delhi. “No one gets anything from me which is more than four hours old,” he says, stressing on how his sourdough is different from what you get at Foodhall, LeMarche, or any other artisanal bakery. But, of course, part of the charm lies in the idea of a hipsterish former techie racking up miles on his bicycle to personally hand-deliver an unusual sort of loaf. His clients do not mind waiting for the doorbell to ring at 11pm, because Ebbie could have been on an epic odyssey across Delhi, covering 120km a day. Neither do they flip when he phones to postpone an order because the bread simply did not rise enough. “I am always hedging in advance and I never tell them I will come exactly on a certain day. Thankfully, people are nice and patient,” says Ebbie, who has gained a following of loyalists without any kind of marketing or social media spamming. Just good old word-of-mouth publicity.
Says Graham Maltby, a teacher and the man who introduced Ebbie to the starter culture, “I used to bake my own sourdough when I moved to Delhi four years ago. But after starting off a year or so ago, Ebbie quickly overtook my baking skills. And the kids love the brioche.” Mekhala Bahl, painter and printmaker, jokes that Ebbie’s crusty loaves trumped dentist-recommended apples in helping her eight-year-old get rid of a tooth. “His sourdough was discovered after five (nearly) failed attempts at finding a regular supply of this essential fermented food,” she says. “It is healthy, gut-friendly and delicious. And his unique delivery mode makes one feel as if one lives in a small town, rather than big, mean Delhi.”
There is a certain old-world charm in knowing a local bread maker who skillfully makes fresh, warm loaves without charging an arm and a leg; the price does not exceed Rs350 for a standard loaf. And sourdough, discovered by the Egyptians in 6000 BC, has some serious pedigree. Even with a boho chic delivery model, the baker himself is quite disdainful of catchwords like “clean-cooking”, “sustainable” and “conscious eating”, because the road to hell is always paved with good intentions. “I could rant about this on social media. I don’t like those clean-eat food movements. As if the rest of the food is dirty. It is a weird thing to say,” says Ebbie, who pairs his sourdough with Indian curries. “I have people who come down to the market and ask, ‘Do you do healthy bread?’ I usually say no. For bread’s sake! It is unfair to put all your health requirements on food.”