Express News Service
CHENNAI: As we turn the corner, the local bakery is getting its powdered sugar delivered, funnelled into the cellar by the barrelful as if it were cement, and we can see nothing but the shadows of the deliverymen in the white, sweet cloud.”
If you too have Gillian Flynn’s words in your head as you dream about cakes during Christmas season, here’s to say you’re not alone. True…this isn’t New York and, more importantly, not the fictional version of it. Yet, Chennai has its own charm in Chennai Winters.
When the air is cold and crisp that an air-conditioned room feels warm, people bring out their earmuffs and monkey caps from storage and every bakery has hot-out-of-the-oven bread on the counter. Add rich and decadent plum cakes to the display and your Christmas is made!
This time around, unsurprisingly, things haven’t been all that magical for cakemakers. The world of commerce may be limping back to normalcy in spurts, but the new normal scripted by the pandemic and the lockdowns it brought on has rewritten our social fabric to the point of no return. And bakeries are feeling the pinch, it seems.
Slow yet steady
Even giants like Ajantha Bakers and Sweets have been dealt a blow. “We haven’t received any orders from churches, schools and colleges. We can only bank on retail business,” reports G Sathish Kumar, the enterprise’s manager. It has been the same with Harinis Bakers & Confectioners (St Thomas Mount) too. “The end of December is crucial because that’s when our longstanding clientele makes an effort to drop by and churches in the locality place their bulk orders for the big day.
We also receive orders from corporates. All that has drastically gone down,” chips in Sudhakar Raghunathan, the owner. “Sadly, the flow of people into the outlet has not been so great,” says Edgar Paul, founder of Little Drops and it’s young venture — Madico Patisserie. “What I hear from friends in the business is this: The only time it was dull was the year MGR passed away. Since then, this is the first Christmas when sales will be far less,” he recounts.
Yet, even for the diminished business, the baking must go on. Albeit with a few adjustments. “Christmas is synonymous with two things for us —plum and rich plum cake. The soaking process begins six months in advance. This year, we started it only three months back, fearing lesser demand. While the plum cake is made using cashew, dates, other dry fruits and rum; the rich plum cake also has orange zest and ginger. Usually, we would prepare 50 kg plum cake but that has come down to 30 kg,” details Venkatesh Shanker, fourth-generation owner of Smith Field Bakery — one that’s been part of the landscape of Purasaiwalkam and Maduravoyal since 1885.
For Ajantha, too, plum cake takes the… cake! “Plum cake la namma dhan ga. You don’t get plum cakes like this even at Taj. We have been doing this traditionally for so many years, using the same recipe and same method,” he elaborates. New Persian Bakery in Royapuram, having witnessed many a Christmas since before independence, has an array of specialities on offer.
What stands out is the horseshoe cake made with sugar, cashew, and egg white. Sudhakar asserts that they are probably one of the few bakeries in the city that offers marzipan for the season. The Old Madras Baking Company has added new items to their menu to keep the cheer intact. “We are doing Christmas pies and empanadas,” shares Sweta Garapati, manager, marketing and business development at OMBC.
Manohar, owner of Leo Fortune Bakers and Confectioners, reports that their walnut cakes, fruit cakes and speciality banana cakes too have been fastselling. As strange as these times may be, people manage to find their own ways to cope with it. For one, they understand that crises come and go. “Over the decades, the baking industry in our country has seen several transformations. When my grandfather first set a shop, bread and varki were the major items in the bakery.
When my father stepped in, bread, rusk and cupcakes became quite popular on the menu. It’s only after the 70s did a variety of snacks and cream cakes became trending. Now, despite a new fleet of competition — home bakers — stepping into the market, traditional bakers like us have been able to keep our ovens up and running. The experience we possess and the love and support of our clientele is one of the many reasons for this,” he says. Oscar C Nigli, the senior national vice president of the All India Anglo Indian Association since 2016, has some insight of his own, too, about the changing times.
“The tradition goes that people from the Anglo Indian community would prepare the batter and give it to age-old bakeries such as Whitefield and Smith Field. The bakeries used to have big wooden ovens and so a large number of cakes used to be baked in a shorter span. These days everybody owns an OTG or an oven. At one point, even in the 60s and 70s , George Town and Royapuram was one of the largest settlements of Anglo Indian community. They used to patronise these bakeries (Persian Bakery, Smith Field, etc.). As they moved to different pockets of the city, many bakeries faded away,” he narrates, pointing out that such challenges have not been new.
With COVID in the picture, bakeries will have to adapt to the change of losing the wholesale market, suggests Sathish. “For Deepavali, you’ll give sweets to like ten houses. For Christians, their main event is this, right? They usually go for these rose cookies, plum cakes and such for friends and family. Now, what if you offer and the other person doesn’t want to it? So, that culture is likely to change (at least for now),” he offers. OMBC has tried to go the subscription model way to get past this hitch. “We have subscription models to deliver bread to your doorstep as often as you choose.
This year, we are gifting plum cakes to our subscribers too, given the way things are,” notes Sweta. They have a steady flow of hampers being delivered too. While coping has been the name of the game, it’s no secret that they can’t wait for the pandemic to be behind all of us. “The important thing is that our customers and staff are safe. But it would be nice to have people come in, sit down for a coffee…see regular life again,” says Sweta, wistfully. Well, we can cake-toast to that and hope for the best.