The archaic, flour-dusted, open kitchen (guests are welcome to look around quietly) bustles with friendly chatter as Aurovillians and local staff hectically bake the fluffiest, tastiest, eminently affordable croissants, breads, quiches, pastries and baguettes at La Boulangerie (on the road to Auroville, off the East Coast Road; official timings are 7am-5pm, but the madly busy and always friendly manager Elumalai says they serve customers from 6:30 am and don’t close until past 6pm, especially if “people are still coming”). You can’t go wrong with their Mediterranean quiche (olives, bell peppers and organic soya milk) and mushroom quiche. The pain au chocolat, filled with thick chocolate, is the first among equals and the cheese baguette is flaky-soft. I particularly loved the raisin croissant and the sugar-sprinkled sacristin; they taste best when they’re still warm.
Most offerings are available in eggless versions. They have single, quickly sold-out lots of these staples daily and turnover determines repeat batches. Cakes are baked in the latter half of the day. The ovens are wood-fired with the fallen branches of the Australian work tree (locally called the pencil maram) brought from Auroville. There’s also an equally sought-after selection of German breads and cakes, and the pumpernickel is known to travel far and wide. Everything is packed in recycled paper; no bags are provided.
Bang opposite the Boulangerie is the quaint (slippers outside, please) Farm Fresh (8am-8pm), with a fast-moving line-up of easily sold-out, predominantly French short eats. The healthful tofu quiche Lorraine (organic soya milk, smoked tofu and fresh cream) is as good as the feta provençal quiche (flavoured with onions and herbs). The chocolate truffles come in four flavours (natural, rum, coffee, almond; and orange pecan). If in doubt, pick the orange pecan. Ask for the totally unforgettable Keyla’s fondant (she supplies fresh from Auroville, best to go after 11am) and the lemon meringue, every spoonful of which just melts in the mouth with no artificial after-taste. Farm Fresh’s organic and low-fat muesli cakes (the best), bars and biscuits, walnut brownies and ‘zero per cent fat’ cookies made with organic jaggery and Auroville butter make great takeaways. They also stock up here on homemade jams, jellies and peanut butter, besides La Ferme’s handmade cheeses.
Finally, in this round-up of extraordinary bakeries, Baker’s Street (11am-10pm) on Bussy Street—despite the Sherlock Holmes logo and plain-sounding tags like ‘ham and cheese sandwiches’—stocks only, but only, French preparations. Their typically unsweetened breads (the only way the French like them, I was told somewhat condescendingly) fly off the shelves busily. There’s plenty of comfortable seating and kids will love the artful breads shaped like turtles and alligators placed here and there. A must-eat is the hot-from-the-oven quiche (mushroom, spinach or cheese here). Follow it up with the vanille or chocolat éclairs. The delectable sesame-flavoured mini poindette cheese baguette also has vegetable and tuna variants. The homemade ganaches (a dozen flavours, including cardamom, banana, coffee, orange and rum and rochers (a French chocolate variety with a crunchy filling, are thoroughly irresistible.
After the warm bakeries, I moved to the cool comfort of a well-run cheese-making outfit that hums with steel apparatus, quality-check machines and a refrigerated subterranean larder lined with wheels of seasoned cheeses that are diligently washed and moistened daily. Six hundred litres of milk are turned into 60 kilos of handmade cheese every day at La Ferme, where Hollander Benny Ernst oversees authentic Dutch, Italian, Swiss and, yes, French recipes that are “adapted to local circumstances”. La Ferme remains true to Auroville’s philosophy of not-for-profit contribution to the community and makes a “variety of fresh and seasoned cheeses at the lowest possible price”. It doesn’t retail at the factory, but the cheeses are available at most supermarkets in Pondicherry. La Ferme’s fresh goat’s cheese is made the French way and is available only locally. The French, like the Italians, prefer strong cheeses and the heady Auroblochon is seasoned for more than six months. Its distinctly piquant taste works well in cheese platters—Auroblochon can only be chopped or sliced, not grated. If you are only a day or two away from home, be sure to also pack some of La Ferme’s sweet-tasting Gruyère and the soft, delicious blue d’Auroville that comes in a blue mould covering. They retail at Farm Fresh, Grinde and Nilgiris (both near Mission Street), and are also to be found in some speciality outlets and restaurants in Chennai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi.
Just opposite Choco-Là on Mission Street is the cheery That’s Y Food, which has set out to give Pondicherry what nobody else does, and that includes Burmese and Lebanese dishes. But go here seriously hungry for the huge mud mousse served in a big mug, and the outrageously rich Kapish. At their pastry counter below-stairs (the counter is open noon-3pm, 6-10pm), service can sometimes be awfully reluctant and their chocolate mousse gets tipsy on rum every once in a way.
I have saved the best for last. Choco-Là (9:30am-10pm) on Mission Street is sure to become a Pondicherry landmark in the years to come. Everything in this artisanal chocolaterie is a work of art, even the roughly hewn slabs of nut-filled chocolate with the intriguing title ‘1836—The Way It Was’. The owner told me that in 1836, in a small village in Central Europe, a young woman accidentally poured chocolate on a table that had been prepared for another recipe. But she decided that the hazelnuts, dry fruits and flakes added to it made the chocolate a different sort of delicacy. So Choco-Là’s chocolate is named in her honour.
Whet the chocoholic in you further with rum, espresso or rich dark truffles, miniature ‘maya’ mousses and hopelessly decadent fondant. A whole counter of freshly prepared only-chocolate-based ice creams opens soon. Staff are friendly and helpful and not obsequious, but that’s not why I am running out of adjectives. Do not, I repeat, do not leave without sampling 54°C—bitter, hazelnut-infused hot cocoa served at exactly that temperature with tiny chocolate boxes of sweetened chocolate shavings placed alongside. Before you sip this heaven in a cup, drop them in, you are instructed. Right away, so that they melt into the hot chocolate and are “very nice to see”. Oh, it is. You just have to see it yourself.