Author Edna Ferber once said, "Christmas isn't a season, it's a feeling."
And there's no feeling quite like enjoying the delicious goods you've baked with family at home. The rich aromas of vanilla, chocolate, cardamom, cinnamon and other spices make for a signature Christmassy fragrance.
The tradition of baking Christmas caked can be traced back to colonial times. The English had a major influence on the culinary palates of Indians living in and around the then 'presidency towns' of Madras (Chennai), Calcutta (Kolkata) and Bombay (Mumbai). The Christian communities living in these metropolitan cities have, over the years, devised a rather eclectic cuisine: incorporating English practices while still being rooted in Indian taste. However, with changing times, many age-old traditions seem to be on the verge of fading — although baking the Christmas cake is one that has prevailed. While a lot of Christmas sweets are store-bought, some families ensure that at least the cake and a few other traditional items are made at home.
This is where The New Persian Bakery, housed in Mumbai's Hindmata locality for over a 100 years now, comes in. The bakery opens its ovens to the public during the festive season — people are invited to bring their batter along (as well as anything else they may need baked) and use the large wood-fired ovens at the New Persian.
Prabhakar, who's been the manager at the iconic bakery for over 15 years now, tells Firstpost: "Every year during Christmas and Diwali, we offer our ovens to people so that they can come and bake their cakes, biscuits, snacks etc. We charge a very nominal rate for the community service — Rs 25 per kg of baked goods." He adds that customers come all the way from Borivali, Bandra, Chembur etc during the festive season.
The gigantic, old bakery has six ovens, out of which two (three, at most) remain operational. During the festive season — Christmas and Diwali — they allot one/two ovens for customers, while the bakery uses one oven for its regular operations. "It is a traditional thing; people keep on coming with their material and get their food baked here. They say it tastes better, as we use wood and coal as fuel," says Prabhakar.
What is so special about these ovens? There's the matter of convenience and access of course — many lower-middle class/middle class families living in Mumbai have neither the space at home nor the resources to keep ovens that are large enough (to use during festive occasions, when a large volume of sweets/cakes are baked). Then there is the taste — the unique flavour imparted by a wood-fired oven.
Says 25-year-old business consultant Benny, "The smoky-and-sweet fragrance of burning wood seeps into the cake, imparting an additional level of flavour. There's a certain old-world charm to it...Christmas cakes have been prepared in a similar way for a long time. I have been coming here to the New Persian for several years now." Benny adds, "We don't have a setup at home that allows us to bake using the traditional technique or in large quantities. Most of us living nearby reside in one-room or two-room chawls, there isn't enough space at home. Hence, coming to a bakery like this is the best option for us."
People drop by with their batter and containers; some even do last-moment additions (like putting edible colouring in the mix, or layering it with nuts etc) before the cake tins enter the wood-fuelled ovens. While at New Persian, we noticed cakes stuffed with all manners of goodies — marshmallow, nuts/raisins, grated coconut, chocolate, jelly, Cadbury's Gems and petha (the north-Indian sweet prepared with ash-gourd).
While it is the women who mostly take the lead in doing the baking, the men help as well. Their tasks include carrying the bags, placing appropriately-cut butter paper onto the dish and naming/numbering their dishes.
The Rodrigues-es have been coming to the New Persian Bakery for over 30 years now. While Mr Rodrigues is a retired shipping businessman, his wife is the principal in a nearby school. "Earlier, I remember, my mother used to bake at home using a make-shift arrangement where she placed the cake container in the chulha and then covered it with hot coal. But now, doing all that is a big hassle," says Mr Rodrigues. Mrs Rodrigues adds, "These days we women go to work, there is hardly any time. I spent four hours scraping coconut for the cake and will go home and work on other items; meanwhile, the cakes get prepared here." What does she like about the cakes baked in the New Persian's ovens? She responds, "They are perfectly baked, just the right way and to the right extent. These people here are professionals; they know how much to do it. That level of accuracy is difficult to attain at home, also it needs a lot of attention."
Like this couple, there are many families who come to the bakery starting from 20 December and continue (read: in gradually decreasing numbers) until the year-end. Some leave their batter and go back home, some stay to chat with others about everything from the previous night's football match to the latest Salman Khan film. The more new age among these folks document the cake-making process on Instagram and WhatsApp.
And with that, Christmas baking suddenly transcends from being a familial practice to a community gathering.
The New Persian Bakery offers the community baking service during Diwali (for 15 days) and Christmas (for a week).
The New Persian Bakery, Behind Hindmata Cinema, St Paul Street, Hindmata, Dadar East, Mumbai, Maharashtra, 400014
Updated Date: Dec 29, 2017 12:34 PM