Its the best time of the year, the drop in temperature, the boots and fancy coats, stockings, decorated streets, carnivals, picnics, holidays, Christmas , Santa Claus. Oh! Talking about Christmas, how can we forget the most relished and anticipated Christmas cake? The air is filled with the scent of them baking, the butter, the dry fruits, vanilla essence, yummm! you start craving for it then and there.
Muslim bakers, Jewish bakery, Hindu owned confectionaries, home-made bakers, all selling Christmas cake at this time of the year. And you still wonder why ours is called the city of joy?
Kolkata never fails to surprise us. In a city like ours, where we celebrate most festivals with equal enthusiasm, Christmas or ‘Boro Din’ (as it is fondly called) was never a festival celebrated only by the Christian community and the Christmas cake that was introduced by the Raj is relished and cherished by all even today. Here, during December, the local bakers, who sell bread and biscuits all year round, start baking cakes for people who bring their own ingredients and hire their oven for some time.
From start-ups to high-end bakeries, many a fancy ones have opened and shut but the name of Saldanha Bakery stands tall and famous among their contemporaries for ages now. The Saldanhas are a small Goan family who are legends in themselves. They have been excelling in this field for about a hundred years now with Items to die for, like – the Wedding cake slices, almond cake, chocolate walnut cake, Lemon drops, chicken envelope, Christmas cake that sell like hot cake throughout the year, quite literally.
Saldanha specializes in providing snacks and savouries for various occasions like the 5tier, 3 tier wedding dummy cake with a Satin finish which very few bakeries do and if done, they charge a bomb. Their almond ice slices have almond icing on three sides which provides a heavenly taste in every bite.
This bakery started off as ‘I.Saldanha Bakery’, named after Ignatius Saldanha and his wife Ubeline Saldanha, who was a very enterprising woman. In fact, she was the one who started the business. Cooking and baking was her passion so she turned her passion into her profession and saw it excel. She would send out the relishing bakery goodies like patties, cakes, different types of pastries (very different from what you have now) in black boxes that had Saldanha written on them. About 20-30 of their workers would take these boxes around and sell it in almost the whole of Calcutta, they would even cater to schools, thereby giving the city a taste so divine, that they would be craving for a long time.
Presently, the business is in the name of Mrs. Mona Saldanha, the proprietress, whereas the think tank behind this bakery is Mr. Denzil Saldanha, who is fondly called ‘uncle’ by all the customers. Most of his contemporaries still remember the ‘black box men’ and the mouth-watering delicacies that they would deliver. Denzil, though in his 80s, is still an active participant in the business. He is a total extrovert and everyone who goes to Saldanha, looks for him.
The Saldanha Way
Baking Her Way To Glory
Currently, their daughter, Debra Saldanha is carrying on the legacy. She now runs this place and has kept up to the high standards maintained by her grandparents and parents. Though Debra jokingly calls herself and the rest ‘sidekicks’ of the business, yet it was remarkable on her part to quit a well paid, secured, bank job that she was into for 16yrs to take over the family run bakery since the last 4 yrs. Recalling those days of switching her profession, she says, “it was literally baptism by fire because it was a totally new line for me.” Initially her father resisted her decision of joining.
“I slogged and did everything by hand and learnt everything on my own so that the workers don’t take me for a ride. They know that I can handle it and if they act tough, I can go down to the bakery, roll up my sleeves and prepare anything. I am not afraid.” – said a confident Debra.
Talking about herself settling into the business, she says that It has been a pretty good time for her because when she joined , she had a lot of friends who wanted many new things introduced which was available at high end bakeries but at a high cost. Her friends encouraged her to try these things so she would keep experimenting to come up with her own recipes to introduce certain new items. She would send it out to friends to taste, get feedback and then launch it.
Debra proudly says that a lot of bakery items that her grandmother had introduced then, is coming back now. For instance, cream rolls weren’t there in the middle, it kind of died off but they are all being reintroduced now, people are wanting to eat all these here as well because people are often travelling abroad and getting a taste of macroons, jam tarts, roulade, etc, so when they come back, they want the same taste here. With shows like Masterchef and fancy bakeries springing up, there is an increase in demand for all these bakery items again. “These things have revived, people are more aware of these items. The older generation knew about these items and then somehow it died off and now again there is a demand for it. They are aware of what the western world offers like a lot of French patisserie items, shoe pastries something that they did not know about earlier.”
Debra believes that when you make anything, the motive is for customers to relish the taste and come back again and again, the cost cannot be unreasonably high. Therefore, when her daughter Alisha Alexander, who has done her patisserie training at Le Cordon Bleu, became a patisserie chef and returned to join hands in the family business, they diversified their items quite a bit but are still looking at keeping the affordable items and also introducing a niche segment which will have products that are high end yet affordable which you would get in a star hotel and are very fancy looking but you know that you could get it right here in Saldanha Bakery. Cup cakes , French macroons, designer cakes, fresh fruit cakes, black forest, be it whatever order, Alisha does the decorations herself to give the cake a finesse that only a trained professional can deliver. They have increased the variety manifold and the pressure is immense but Alisha seems determined to take the business notches higher with the introduction of niche items at affordable prices.
Christmas cake being a hit in this bakery, makes the months of November-December very busy for them. From November the Christmas cake orders start coming in. Demand for it increases a lot. They bake to order and therefore all their items are fresh and sell out faster than a blink. “what people do not realize is that this cake is available on order throughout the year and it is known as rich fruit cake “ – said Denzil.
If we were to describe the amount of sale they have only for Christmas cake during November-December, then we only have one word to describe that ‘enormous’. At any given point of time you would find a huge queue outside Saldanha bakery, but you would not find people grumbling and complaining, infact they would be wishing each other, chatting with each other and talking about shopping etc. Its the bon homie, the Christmas spirit that keeps them going.
“We do get to hear that the queue reaches quite far.” – confessed a smiling Debra
Their USP is their informal nature of business where they know most of their customers by name. They provide a homely atmosphere, where all the clients call up and want to speak to ‘uncle’ mostly. Their items are reasonably priced, value for money, fresh, to order. “We make everything fresh so people can even order their wedding cake 3-4 days in advance, no issue with that, but we get orders for wedding cakes even a year in advance by people coming from abroad.” Said Debra.
Interestingly, they owe their success to word of mouth that has helped them reach this far. They let their baking do the talking.
Something to look forward to: Let’s hope for a Saldanha Confectionary cafe sometime soon. Maybe?
For someone with a sweet-tooth, this place is heaven and for those of you who don’t know yet, you could reach Saldanha by taking the lane adjacent to B.C.Sen Jewelley shop on Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Road, walk along the path for two minutes or so till you reach a yellow wall that has Saldanha written on it. Walk in and go up the stairs of gastronomical paradise and rest assured your taste buds would be more than satisfied. If nothing else, let the aroma wafting in the air, guide you there.
Pictures: Rumaan Rashid