It's an Xmas Kerala tradition baked to perfection since 1880, and now exported.
Back in 1880, in the small port town of Thalasserry in north Kerala, Mambally Bapu, a businessman who shipped milk, tea and bread to British troops in Egypt, had no clue that he was about to create culinary history.
One day, a British planter named Murdoch Brown walked into his little borma (bakery) with a rich plum cake he had brought from England, and asked Bapu to bake one just like that. Brown also gave him raisins, dates and a few other ingredients. The mould, however, was procured locally. A week later, the Englishman tasted “one of the best cakes he had ever had”.
That, according to A.P.M. Gopalakrishnan, Bapu’s great grandnephew, was the first cake ever baked in Kerala. In Syrian Christian homes across central Kerala, baking has been practised to perfection by homemakers of yore, and is a thriving business today. Come early-November, and Malayalis across the globe start placing their orders with baking houses in Kottayam in preparation for Christmas.
At Gopalakrishnan’s 68-year-old Best Bakery, as also other bakeries in the city such as Omana Paul’s, thousands of cakes are churned out during the Yuletide season alone.
“We start procuring the walnuts, dates, raisins and so on from early-September and soak them in rum or brandy by October,” says Shirley, the owner of Omana Paul’s. Around 1,000 kg of grapes are plucked and peeled over a month, and stewed daily. When cooled, this syrup is poured into four-feet-high plastic barrels, and the ingredients are soaked in it. Each barrel is dated accurately, as the first batch of cakes is made from the first barrel and so on. Each barrel makes around 700 cakes. On average, each year Omana Paul’s produces around 8,000 traditionally-made plum cakes during the festivities.
“These cakes get better with time,” explains Biji, Shirley’s husband. According to Shirley, Omana kochamma (a term of respect for an older woman), after whom the bakery has been named, had only one golden rule: The cakes should be stored in an airtight box to preserve their taste and texture. She used to initially pack the rich dessert in butter paper, before moving to aluminium foil and, finally, plastic cover. A few years ago, they did away with tin foil because “it blackens when the cake gathers moisture”.
“Kochamma started her business by baking 100 cakes every Christmas as gifts for friends,” says Shirley. Today, the plum cakes, selling at Rs 530 a kg, are relished by thousands. Corporate houses start booking from September, including orders for the ‘special’ plum cakes — baked before November 1 — for their extra strong flavour.
Best Bakers does not follow the traditional baking method for its Christmas cakes. “We add the rum before baking and spray it on after it is done,” says Gopalakrishnan. The cake-mixing is mechanised, and gas-ovens or heated coconut shells are used for baking. “We prefer the indigenous method because, sometimes, the cakes may absorb the smell of gas,” he adds. Electric ovens are a big no-no — “we can’t trust the electricity supply here, and mass baking requires a consistent and even temperature”.
Ninety-five per cent of Best’s clientele consists of Syrian Christian Malayalis, most of them expatriates. Regulars place huge orders and ship them to the US or the Gulf. A kilo of plum cake in the US would cost Rs 700, so “it’s cheaper to ship a Rs 220 cake from Best Bakers”.
Anns House of Sweets, in Kottayam, sells around 1,000 kg of cakes daily during Christmas. Its speciality includes the Super Rich Plum cake and the Rum and Raisin cake, sold at Rs 500 and Rs 400 a kg, respectively.
It directly exports bulk orders to the US and UAE. Christmas cakes dominate sales at its Kottayam stores and at franchises across Kerala during the whole of December, so much so that they stock nothing else nor accept orders for birthday cakes.
Raju, manager for 20 years at the main outlet in Kottayam, says it’s the average middle-class customer who buys the most number of these cakes during Christmas. Many — especially non-Christians — buy cakes only during the festive season.
Alongside the growing demand, there is rising competition too, with every bakery coming out with cheaper versions of the plum cake. “The smartest entrepreneur would be the guy who knows how to market the cakes well,” says Gopalakrishnan, adding that most upcoming bakeries are usually owned by former Best Bakery employees.
Things are hectic for Biji and Shirley, too, what with Omana Paul’s sudden demise earlier this year. Shirley was a little girl when she began tagging along with her mother every day to work in Kochamma’s kitchen. And it is this 30-year experience, both near the furnace and at the office desk, which gives her the courage to carry on this legacy.
The future for these baking houses is definitely focused on expansion and export. And thanks to the Syrian Christian’s penchant for traditions wherever he or she may go, these baking houses have it made. For them, it’s truly a piece of cake!
© Women’s Feature Service