Have you ever wondered where the first Christmas cake mixing happened in the city? This season, City Express followed the trail which led to chefs, historians and Anglo-Indian home bakers, and discovered the unexpected...
If you did a Google search of where the Christmas tradition of cake mixing began in the world, you’ll find that it dates all the way back to Victorian England. From plum porridge to pudding to much later in the 16th century, cake. And making the rounds of five star hotels, dipping our gloved hands deep into trays of plums and rum, raisins and tutti fruiti - it got us thinking...when did this tradition make its way to Chennai?
So of course, the first order of business was to chat up with a few chefs who have been around well over a decade. And given that plum cake has been around as far back as one can remember, whether at your neighbourhood McRennette or a more luxury purchase, we imagined that it would go back at least into our grandparents’ time. But executive chef at the Sheraton Park Hotel and Towers, Praveen Anand surprises us, “Actually, I only remember seeing a cake mixing that was an event of sorts in the late 90s.” He adds, “And I would know, I began my career way back in ‘84.”
While of course cakes are mixed all year round, including plum cakes, the ceremonious tradition that we are referring to happens just once a year. And this starts as early as the first week of November for some. What sets it apart from any old day in the bakery is that celebrities are invited, hotel guests and their little ones get the chance to get their fingers sticky and oh the best part — the heady aroma of bottles and bottles and bottles of alcohol poured all over several (hundred) kilos of dried fruits. Of course, as one can imagine, the situation simply demands a selfie and photo ops aplenty.
“But that’s not how I remember it,” says a nearly 80-year-old Beatrix D’Souza. After stumping a few historians with our question, this reporter finally found some hope when directed to the ex-MP and long time Anglo Indian resident in the city. “I wouldn’t know when the first cake mixing was because most families in our community bake their own Christmas cakes, and continue even today,” she tells us. However, D’Souza does give us a glimpse of a timeline, “I’m sure the tradition is easily 200 hundred years old, I know my grandma did it with all of us around the table.”
Back when it wasn’t a fashionable affair, she reminsces, “It was just a small 10-pound cake for the family. And since not everybody had an oven in the house, women would take their mix in big dekshis to the nearest bakery to use their oven...”
While the tradition brought the whole family together, as was its intended purpose, one thing that any Anglo Indian baker will refuse to share is the recipe! “I’ve been baking for 40 years now, and a lot of people have asked,” says Barbara Pavey, a popular name in Perambur for her rich fruity bakes. But she pauses, with a twinkle in her eye, “No, my great grandmother passed it down, I’m never giving it up.” Maybe, we’ll try getting her to spill the beans next Christmas...For the moment, cross your fingers before you take a bite of your cake. You just might find a coin in there if you’re lucky!