The heavenly, yeasty aroma of baked cakes and bread fills the nostrils as one passes through the narrow street by the Bank Employees Union Hall towards Kallamman Kovil, behind the General Post Office in Thiruvananthapuram.
Beyond the tall wall, multiple generations of bakers and confectioners have defined and re-defined anything baked or confected in Thiruvananthapuram for the past eight decades. Small vehicles wait on the street to ferry the prepared items to Santha Bakery at Pulimoodu on MG Road.
The mouthwatering smell wafting out to the street will soon be a thing of the past like Santha Bakery itself. This will be the last Christmas for the bakery, a much-sought-after destination ever since it was founded in 1940.
Santha Bakery boasts of a rich legacy — the legacy of Mambally Bapu — who baked the first Indian version of the Christmas cake.
Ailing for a long time due to financial and administrative reasons, the bakery will wind up operations by the beginning of January, leaving behind a void in the minds of cake lovers in the southern parts of Kerala.
Mambally Bapu, an entrepreneur in Thalassery made India’s first Christmas cake in 1883. His family later spread out and set up bakeries in several Kerala towns.
While Santha catered to the needs of Thiruvananthapuram, Cochin Bakery flourished in Kochi and Modern Bakery rewrote Kozhikode’s taste concepts.
Best Baking Co was established in Kottayam, while Cochin Bakery expanded its operations to Kozhikode and Mangaluru.
In Thalassery, Mambally Bakery remained the nerve centre of the combined culinary expeditions of the family’s bakery business. Best Baking Co stopped its operations recently.
Other bakeries, including Mambally Bakery in Thalassery, are carrying forward the legacy of Bapu, who learnt the intricacies of making cakes from Britishers camped in Myanmar, then known as Burma.
“We are finding ourselves caught in a big crisis. So there is no scope for continuing the operations of Santha,” PMK Premanath, who now owns Santha Bakery, told South First.
For the residents of Thiruvananthapuram, Santha was integral to Christmas celebrations since 1940 when Bapu’s relative and Premnath’s father PM Krishnan started it on the advice of the legendary communist leader, AK Gopalan.
Come January, the decadent lusciousness of Santha will pass on and become a part of a lingering dainty and aromatic nostalgia.
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A delicious slice of history
“Our family belonged to the coastal town of Thalassery which had a huge British settlement,” Premnath recalled baking the first Christmas cake in India.
A British planter, Murdoch Brown, gave Bapu the necessary baking instructions. Brown was then developing a cinnamon plantation at Ancharakandy,” he added.
Prakash Mampally, the present owner of Mambally Bakery in Thalassery, took over the narration from Premnath.
“My great-grandfather, Bapu was a businessman based in Burma, and he shipped milk, tea, and bread from there to the British troops in Egypt. He returned to Thalassery in 1880 and established a bakery,” Mampally reminisced.
“In those days, there was only one bakery in India, in Kolkata, catering exclusively to the British. So Bapu’s Royal Biscuit Factory here became India’s first Indian-run bakery that catered to both the local population and the English,” Mampally, who over the years has baked 17 different varieties of Christmas plum cakes with unique desi flavours, explained.
Bapu had mastered the art of biscuit-making while in Burma. He wanted to return home and popularise baked food products in Thalassery and its surroundings, then a part of the Madras Presidency.
He started baking over 40 varieties of biscuits, rusks, bread, and buns after returning home.
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India’s first Xmas cake
“A few days before Christmas in 1883, Brown visited Bapu’s biscuit factory with a rich plum cake he had bought from England. He told Bapu to taste the cake and bake a similar one,” Mampally continued.
“Without knowing that he was carving out a niche space in India’s culinary history for himself, Bapu agreed and sought 10 days to prepare the cake,” he added.
The foreigner gave Bapu essential ingredients for the cake — cocoa, dates, raisins and other dry fruit. He also told Bapu to buy a French brandy from the neighbouring Mahe or Mayyazhi, then a French settlement, now a part of Puducherry.
Instead of travelling 14 km to buy brandy, Bapu decided to substitute it with liquor locally brewed using cashew apples and Kadalipazham, a variety of banana. A blacksmith in Dharmadam on the outskirts of Thalassery made a mould based on Bapu’s description.
On 20 December 1883, Brown visited Bapu again and received the first plum cake made in India. After tasting it, Brown certified it “excellent” and the planter ordered a dozen more.
“In those days, yeast was not available for fermentation in British India. So he experimented with locally-brewed liquor. The local liquor has effectively fermented the dough and provided it with a unique flavour,” Premnath said.
Kerala has the largest plum cake market in India, and the Mambally family has a significant share in the cake business.
With the new generation in the family preferring other career options, even the existing bakeries are facing an existential crisis.
“Santha was the ultimate culinary experience for nearly eighty years for anything baked or confected in Thiruvananthapuram,” writer and senior journalist MG Radhakrishnan recalled.
“It introduced the best of such western delicacies, be it the everyday bread, the mouth-watering plum cake or the hot and spicy mutton puffs,” he added.
The veteran journalist felt that Santha must have redefined taste for at least three generations.