There is only one man who looks like he does not want to be at Nahoum’s this week. It’s their bouncer. What does a Bengali bouncer look like, anyway? Scrawny, sweating in his sleeveless cardigan, sitting on a wooden stool and yelling at everybody to be patient, or else the “firut” cake will run out. Patience has little to do with the availability of the Jewish bakery’s best-selling product — it’s a question of dumb luck, nothing else.
At least that’s what it looks like when you’re standing very close to one of the many exits of New Market in Kolkata; a long bus ride in less traffic has done precious little to get you a place closer to the entrance of the Confectioners Nahoum and Sons,
(established in 1902), where at noon, nearly 100 people have queued up to buy sugary treats and that famous fruit cake. You’d think it were a bank and not a bakery, and nobody would laugh, because Kolkata folk take their Christmas very seriously. And there can be no authentic celebration if there is no cake from Nahoum’s.
To say that Nahoum’s is an institution in Kolkata is not an understatement — it is a fact. The Jewish community might have dwindled from a few thousands to less than one hundred, but the bakery has survived because it offers a window into the past. The decor hasn’t changed in several decades — the teakwood counter, glass and wood display cases. They are a testimony to how time can be trapped in a bottle, or better still, a plum cake.
Urmi Mukherjee and her sister have come from Gariahat in south Kolkata; the wait has turned their part of the line into a hub for amateur mathematicians. “If X spends an average of Y minutes to buy the cake and some pastries, how long do you think it’ll be before we get in?” Mukherjee, 45, doesn’t mind, though. “We queued up last year as well. I know the cake is not what it used to be but I’ve been coming here as a little girl; our parents brought us here every Christmas. They passed away, but when I come to Nahoum’s, I feel like they’re still here with us,” she says.
Does their rich fruit cake deserve this sort of devotion? Perhaps not. The bakery doesn’t skimp on the ingredients, one thick slice is quite enough, but all things considered, it is a little dry. And now, it is a little expensive as well, at least by Kolkata’s standards. “Last year, we paid Rs 250 for a pound,” says somebody. “No, you couldn’t have. I paid more,” says somebody else, a little louder. This year’s rate for a two-pound cake, Rs 600, is trickling down the line and many are disheartened — nostalgia doesn’t stand a chance against inflation.
Several minutes later, inside the shop, there’s utter pandemonium — harried store helps are “moving as fast as we can”; two Bengali women are shrieking at each other at the counter while their husbands look on helplessly; barring the lemon tarts and the chocolate rum balls, the other pastries look orphaned and forlorn. Aunty Nahoum is on the verge of a breakdown — but the orders won’t stop coming. Nahoum’s would benefit from the digital economy — they only take cash and that much money in a single room is driving everybody a little batty.
Armed with a “mild” plum cake and a box full of cheese puffs (somebody had to rescue them), I exit Nahoum’s, only to find an NRI couple taking a selfie with their baby and the cake they just bought. Success is sweet.