“To make an end is to make a beginning” – T.S. Eliot.
As I sit down and write this article, the year 2013 is coming to the end. However, before the end of this year, the yuletide spirit is upon us. Christmas may not be big in India but one city has an age old relationship with Christmas. That is Kolkata, (nay I’ll go with Calcutta this time). As you travel through the heart of the city you can still the remnants of the colonial era which us Calcuttans have happily adopted as a part of our cultural identity. A walk down Park Street, mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral at midnight is a must for every Christmas loving Calcuttan. The sleepy Bow Barracks are never more alive as near and dear ones from across the globe come back to their roots here to celebrate Christmas with their loved ones. The halls are decked and wreaths kept out for the occasion.
With Christmas, come the Christmas cakes. As the decades have rolled by, modernity has crept into all our festivals and often traditions have taken a backseat. Today, the average Calcuttan shops at a chique new bakery for a readymade Christmas cake baked with the start of the art modern techniques. But there are some who have kept the traditional methods of baking cakes alive. A small part of North Kolkata, called Taltala, observes heightened activity around this time. This part of this wonderful city is home to lots of small bakeries. These bakeries are run by generations of the same family having a clutch of very loyal families as their clientele who come here generation after generation for their Christmas Cake. These bakers rent out their ovens for the Christmas cakes of these clients. These are the traditional ovens of the olden days with wood used as fuel and iron files, pebbles and glass used as insulating material.
Some families have their own traditional recipes which have followed by generations and someof the families use the baker’s recipes. These cakes often take a week or so of preparation to be prepared. The right quality of ingredients including the flour, eggs , fruits and nuts have to be bought. The fruits are cut and dried in the sun for a week. For the process, ample quantities of butter are blended into the sugar and eggs. Later the fruits are added and if necessary essence ( vanilla or strawberry) is added. The flour is added to the mixture. The entire thing is mixed well and baked for about 1 to 1.5 hour. The families swear by the quality and taste of these cakes, often saying that the magic lies in the traditional ovens and no amount of modern equipment or process would replicate that magic. The preparation of these cakes often takes all day long which is like a picnic for everyone. The bakeries too are extremely busy with over 300 cakes being baked a day.
A walk along the pavement lining the bakeries is enough to make your mouth water as heavenly aromas engulf you. These are the aromas of an era gone by, the passage of a time and of traditions slowly being lost which some of us are fighting to keep alive. The aromas of an old-world to which I get transported whenever I pass through those bylanes.