As you step inside the Nahoum & Sons bakery in the city’s New Market area, the sensation that time has rapidly moved backwards is unavoidable. On Christmas eve, the massive crowd at its gate serves another reminder — for the city’s oldest Jewish bakery, like the rest of the city, Christmas is not a religious festival but a celebration of its people, irrespective of religion, caste, ethnicity or class.
Over a century later, the confectioner’s shop, which Nahoum Israel Mordecai established in 1902, hasn’t changed much. It was a small outlet in front of the Hogg Market and moved to its present location in 1916. The century-old marble work on the ceiling from Italy, the glass cases and teak wood furniture from Belgium and the delectable treats, based on family recipes — all remain exactly as they were.
“I am now the standard bearer for something that my grandfather started. I am trying to live up to those legends and maintain the principles that we’ve always had. We have been a bakery of the masses while never compromising on quality. The rich and famous and the not-so-rich and famous, they all come here,” said Isaac Nahoum, the bakery’s current proprietor.
One look at the massive queue that snakes its way through the brightly lit, narrow lanes of New Market underscores this. Hundreds of customers queue up, wait patiently with their orders — plum cake, black forest cake, rich fruit cake are among the favourites.
“We are the people’s bakery —Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Iranian, Jewish, Chinese — it doesn’t matter. The thing with Calcutta is that people here have always been very enterprising about food and so they have always wanted to try new things. We have thrived as the population of the city has increased and changed character,” Isaac said.
Until the mid-20th century, the city was home to a small Jewish population of around 4,000 at the time. Nahoum’s, the city’s last surviving Jewish bakery, remains a vestige of that dwindling heritage.
The rich fruit cake, in particular, remains synonymous with Kolkata’s Christmas celebrations. Legends surrounding the bakery say that when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, had come to the city, he had tasted the cake and declared it “the best fruit cake” he had ever tasted.
“At times, we find that people who have moved abroad and eaten cakes elsewhere come back and say that the delicacies here can’t be compared elsewhere. We are planning to increase our reach by selling cakes online. We’d want as many people in the country to have a taste of Nahoum’s as possible,” Isaac added.