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Army kitchen gives Hyderabad Swiss flavour

Master baker Ravi Kumta shows off Swiss specialities at The Ofen

(swissinfo.ch)

The Indian city of Hyderabad is known for its Arabic influence, but it also has a taste of Switzerland in the shape of a bakery complete with mobile army kitchen.

The Ofen (Oven), bustling with customers sipping coffee among shelves of fresh Zopf breads and other Swiss specialities, was set up with the help of a wandering Swiss master baker.

Many of the regulars in this information technology boomtown are drawn to the delicacies they became accustomed to while working in Europe. And for others, the new tastes on offer are an intriguing addition to the traditional diet of roti and nan breads.

"At first people were not used to Swiss bakery, but once they sample our bread they don't want local breads any more," co-owner Mukti Bosco told swissinfo.

"They say it has much more character and it feels like eating real bread. Hyderabad is a big bread-eating place because of Arabic influence and the largest volume of bread in India is sold here."

The Ofen had been a dream of Mukti and her husband Malapatti for decades, but it finally came to fruition just over two years ago thanks to a little help from Swiss master baker Martin Zbinden.

After graduating from catering college, Zbinden spent most of the late 1990s travelling to far-flung corners of the world helping to set up bakeries and acting as a consultant. He even ran his own business in Georgia for a while.

Army mobile kitchen

"I am very interested in other countries but I did not want to travel just as a tourist. I wanted to get to know the people and the best way to do that is to work with them," Zbinden told swissinfo.

"The biggest demand for Swiss expertise comes from more exotic countries where Switzerland has such a good reputation in the catering and hotel sectors."

After several years travelling to such distant locations as Thailand and Jordan, Zbinden took a different career path with Zurich-based private bank Julius Bär. One of his new colleagues was a brother of Malapatti Bosco and recruited Zbinden for the Hyderabad project.

"At first I thought it was a joke, but I soon realised that they were serious about setting up a Swiss bakery in India," Zbinden said.

The first job was finding robust and versatile equipment to produce high-quality breads under testing conditions. A Swiss army mobile kitchen was the answer to India's expensive and volatile electricity supply as it could be fuelled by charcoal, wood or oil.

"It was also a very good talking and marketing point. We shipped the oven first and then we found a place to house it. It was a huge exercise," said Mukti Bosco.

Exciting challenge

Once the machinery was fitted, Zbinden went to Hyderabad to train the chefs up to the high Swiss bakery standards. He was impressed with the quality of staff, many of whom had trained and worked abroad.

But he encountered other problems that made it challenging to produce Swiss speciality breads and pastries.

"The flour is mostly good quality but it can be variable and the sugar has harder crystals than we are used to in Switzerland," he said. "This makes it hard to maintain constant quality control. You have to experiment and try out different things."

The Ofen has adopted the European fad for healthy eating, serving gluten-free products hand-baked in traditional style and avoiding pre-mixes. The results have been so well received that the business intends opening several franchises over the next five years.

A second Swiss army mobile kitchen has already arrived in Bangalore.

Zbinden will return to Hyderabad next year to train new staff and he is ready to lend his expertise to other enterprises when called for.

"I don't do it for the money but because it is an exciting challenge," he said.

swissinfo, Matthew Allen in Hyderabad

Swiss-Indian ties

Swiss foreign minister and this year's president Micheline Calmy-Rey paid a state visit to India in November with the aim of intensifying links between the two countries.

It is hoped Switzerland and India will eventually sign a memorandum of understanding to cooperate more closely in a range of fields, including the economy, the environment, education, research and development work.

Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of Switzerland becoming the first country to sign a Friendship Treaty with the then newly independent India.

At the end of 2006, 707 Swiss were living in India with 6,984 Indians in Switzerland.

Several Swiss companies have set up business in India, including Holcim, Novartis, ABB, Nestlé and Sulzer.

Swiss exports to India rose 38 per cent to SFr1.9 billion ($1.65 billion) in 2006 and imports were up 13 per cent to SFr737 million.

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