Secularism in a fruitcake? The charms of Kolkata's 'home-baked' Christmas

It’s the most unlikely Christmas tableau. Montoo’s bakery in a dingy lane in Colootala in Kolkata feels more Dickensian than Willy Wonka. The rooms are cramped and dingy, the paint peeling, the passageways narrow. Shirts, lungis and old bags hang from hooks on the wall. Workers squat on the floor briskly stirring mounds of flour with slabs of Amul butter and sugar, cracked egg shells littered around them. Right above their heads other workers sleep on bunk beds, oblivious to the racket. As Christmas approaches Montoo’s oven works round the clock churning out batch after batch of Christmas cake, each one baked with a slip of paper bearing the name of the person they belong to – Shireen, Lucy, Rocky.

Montoos’ own cakes are legendary – fruit cakes, plain cakes, box cakes, chhena cake. Their shop J N Barua, dating back to the British days, still has an outpost in Bow Barracks, Kolkata’s famous Anglo-Indian neighbourhood. “We are open all night on Christmas eve and people just line up for the Christmas cake and our chhena cake,” says Murshid Ali who runs the shop. “They sit here, eat cake, drink wine and have full fun.” But come Christmas, Montoo does something the big fancy patisseries do not. He rents out his oven and his bakers for anyone who wants their own “home-baked” Christmas.

 Secularism in a fruitcake? The charms of Kolkatas home-baked Christmas

One of the cake from the Saldanha bakery. Sandip Roy/Firstpost

Rent an oven
It’s rented not by the hour but by the kilo of sugar. At about Rs 250 per kilo of sugar, Montoo’s cakes are still a deal says Shireen Poddar who has brought her flour, sugar, eggs, chopped fruits, Old Monk and and a little brandy in her red Coach shopping bag. “I am not Christian but I love fruitcake,” she says as she presides over her cake mixing. “Have you washed your hands properly?” she scolds as the worker starts mixing the flour and sugar. Right next to him another worker cracks some 40 eggs into a big pot.

Rocky Michael D’Abreo has been coming to Montoos for two generations. “Wherever his bakery has moved, we have followed,” he says. “He knows us. And his baking is excellent.” Even the neighbourhood drunk agrees. The local tough barges in, creates a ruckus, curses and threatens and then ultimately staggers around demanding free cake.

Montoo puts the cakes inside his over. Sandip Roy/Firstpost

Montoo puts the cakes inside his over. Sandip Roy/Firstpost

But Mrs Morris, a formidable woman in a flowered dress with a walking stick is unfazed. She’s more perturbed about her cakes than drunks. “Montoo don’t put so much tez (fire), baba” she shouts. “Cakes are red on top but pale below.” Montoo, a grey-haired man in a sleeveless vest, his hands blackened with soot, placates her with tea. Batch after batch of fruit cake come out of the oven, the butter still bubbling, the sugar caramelised, and are set out on the floor to cool. “My grandfather learned this from the British. He was a bawarchi for them. I am the third generation,” says Montoo.

And he might be the last. This is back-breaking work especially during Christmas. He says he barely sleeps after the 18th of December. “It’s alright as long as I am standing. When I head home I want to just lie down on the street.”

Sheikh Syed who has been baking here for twenty years says “Demand is up but the number of bakers is down. The children are all going away.” He says it’s hard to find educated people to go into this kind of old-fashioned baking businesses anymore. Montoo’s own son is studying hotel management. “It’s a modern world,” he says “But we are old-fashioned. We still like the taste of a cake that comes out of a wood-fired oven.”

The fruitcake, even more than Santa Claus, is the abiding symbol of a Kolkata Christmas. At Nahoum’s and Sons, the only Jewish bakery in town, the line for plum cake snakes around the block. Manager Jagadish Halder says people come back to Nahoum sometimes because they remember stories about their grandmother’s wedding cake from here. The chain bakeries like Monginis set up separate counters outside the shops just to sell “rich plum cake.” The fancier Flury’s stays open all night on Christmas Eve. “Our plum cake has been marinading since last week of November,” says manager Rajiv Khanna.

Christmas cake all year round
At the family-owned Saldanha’s bakery in central Kolkata, workers sit on the floor, newspapers spread around them slicing loaves of fruit cake with thick almond icing and shrink wrapping them in plastic. “Our cakes are unique because we have icing on all three sides. So you get icing with every bite,” says Denzil Saldanha.

Saldanha wrapping a cake after it's been baked. Sandip Roy/ Firstpost

Saldanha wrapping a cake after it's been baked. Sandip Roy/ Firstpost

Denzil in his eighties. Most of his customers call him “Uncle”. The cake rush is so high he says he’s running late on baking his bread. In Goa where his family is from Christmas still feels like a Christian festival. In Calcutta, he says it’s the “non-Christian community that has taken to this trend and culture of cake eating at Christmas time.”

By the time Christmas is over Saldanhas will have sold 500-600,000 pounds of cake. Almost of all it is made to order. Saldanhas does not believe in having stale cake lying around the shelves.

The funny thing says Denzil is that most people do not realise he makes “Christmas cake” all year round. “The name may be Xmas but it’s also known as rich fruit cake, wedding cake, first Holy Communion cake. We are making it throughout the year.”

Although the demand keeps going up Denzil says it’s been hard to keep the business going. His son was settled in America, his daughter was working as a banker. “Age was taking its toll. We thought we would have to shut down,” he says. His daughter Debra says she was moved when she heard people say Christmas would not be the same without Saldanha’s cakes. “People are so emotional about Saldanha’s cakes I decided to join the family business,” she says. “It was difficult. I was used to getting a salary every month. And my dad put me through a baptism by fire. When I rolled out my first puff and put it in the oven I would pray to God and hope it would rise and be flaky.”

Muslim bakers of Christmas cakes
In a city like Calcutta, renowned for its sweet tooth and its gusto in celebrating festivals, Christmas cakes have outlived the British who introduced them to the city. And they have spread far beyond the city’s dwindling Christian community. In fact, Saldanha’s is an exception. Most of the bakers who are the busiest at this time of the year are Muslim.

These small neighbourhood Muslim bakeries would supply biscuits and bread year around to customers. “Those customers want to make their own cakes according to their own formulas and they want to bake it,” says Denzil. “So who is going to bake it for them? Established bakeries not prepared to bake for others. The Muslim bakers are prepared to do it. So customers are happy. Muslim bakers are happy they are earning some money at Christmas.”

Cakes cooling after being baked. Sandip Roy/Firstpost

Cakes cooling after being baked. Sandip Roy/Firstpost

Kanchan bakery in a narrow lane not far away is an example. Women in burkhas trundle by in rickshaws. A nearby mosque sounds the azaan. The bakery has a picture of Mecca on the wall. But the banner slung across the street wishes customers a Merry Christmas and asks them to book their baking slots from December 1. Cake baking starts from 15 December and the banner reassures them that after 52 years in the business, “traditional process is still following.”

Sheikh Nuruddin says when his father started the business, his customers were mostly Christians in the neighbourhood. Now it’s everyone. “Eid, Pujas, Christmas, everyone enjoys cake,” he says. He says even those with ovens at home come to him at this time of the year to bake cake. “The wood-fired oven is our asset,” he says. His oven stays on from 5 am in the morning till 11 at night. “Towards the end we are up all night, there’s a lot of celebration and hattogol (ruckus) right here,” he laughs.

As he cuts me a slice of his own fruit cake, a woman comes up and asks for biscuits. “Those are finished,” says Nuruddin. “Come back after January 1.”

“What ?” grumbles the woman. “Shall I eat only cake now?

Nuruddin smiles.

You could call it the triumph of capitalism. Or you could think of it as a slice of peace and goodwill on earth. The Muslim bakers. The Jewish bakery. The Hindu manager. All having their Christmas cake and eating it too.

Updated Date: Dec 25, 2014 08:45:28 IST