Kochi’s Christmas hampers are full of sweet stories
The change in Cochin’s confectionery ecstasies is palpable from the body of work of its passionate home bakers. This year, more of them have come forward with carefully curated festive hampers showcasing the best food treats from their repertoire of Christmas themes. They were open for orders since the last week of November. The last set of goodies would be going out about now after which most of them would take a long break from their busiest season in their yearly baking calendar. A few of them spoke to me between breaks, in the true spirit of Christmas.
Once upon a time, Christmas in Kerala was synonymous with the gifting of the spiced, dark-brown plum cakes studded with raisins and nuts covered with hard icing, a piping of pink roses and its green leaves. Privately we would dread the sight of these cakes after a certain point in the season. The initial excitement of the mixing, chopping the fruits and nuts, adding them to the rum to soak and, having them mature over time wears off as we get inundated with gifts in the form of cakes from family and friends.
The icing was my grandmother’s fav part, she used to store it in glass bottles to enjoy them with her evening tea. The history of this plum cake can be traced back to the Roman times to a porridge made of oats, fruits, nuts and sweetmeats. At some point, the oats were replaced by flour, the fruits, mainly dried raisins and prunes that were collectively known as plums were retained with the nuts. In Victorian England, this cake was either steamed or baked and soon became a commercially viable product for Christmas and the eve of the Epiphany. About this time the concept of the Christmas hamper of handpicked food and drinks in wicker baskets became popular among the wealthy. The railroads made the transportation easier and homemade cakes were sent to soldiers serving outside England as Christmas presents, the sugar in the fruits and the alcohol ensured that the cakes were preserved long after delivery. Some Christmas cakes would keep for a year.
At its heart, the Christmas Hamper resonates with the season’s spirit of “hospitality, merriment and open heartedness”, as Dickens puts it in Pickwick Papers. In its most vicarious sense, it is a visual treat, a basket of delectable food dressed in festive motifs, delivered to our doorstep in the weeks leading to Christmas. It brings with it a measure of surprise at the goodwill of the sender, a childlike wonderment about the many little gifts on the part of the receiver.
While the charm is in balancing the quality of food with its outward embellishments, the affordability of each hamper also needs to be maintained without dampening the spirit of the season. That takes effort, months of planning the menu on the part of the bakers, and their coordination with their hamper friends, who create and source customized packaging solutions. The interesting part is almost all these creative entrepreneurs of Cochin are women.
Although a hamper can be made of anything and everything, most of Cochin’s hampers are sweet—filled to the brim with a portion of the fruit cake, flavoured loaves, logs, jam rolls, a variety of cookies, chocolatey brownies, sticky toffee pudding, delicate macarons and shortbreads. Jeny John adds her signature boozy rum cakes and rum brownies to all her hampers, Aswti Devassy cannot think of a sweet box without her showstopper brownies. Reshma sticks to non-alcoholic fruit cakes and linzer cookies.
The cakesicles has found its way into the hamper as one of the most versatile decorations and edibles. The blank canvas it provides in its popsicle form is a baker’s dream to deck it up according to the theme of the season. The highlight of the hamper from Akhila at Sweet Stories is a Santa Popsicle. It looks so festive and just right to ring in Christmas. Most of mini hampers at Little Cup Cakes by Ashwini Krishna are also designed around it.
Sylvi’s Creations adds a savory bottle of beef achaar with a bottle of their ginger cordial, pineapple chili jam along with a choice of desserts. Anna Sebastian of the Foodie and The Feast has added scented candles in her black and silver hamper she has named the Holy Night. Jeemol Koruth who is known for her healthy baked goods of organic and natural ingredients adds a multi grain bread wreath in her eco-friendly craft boxes. Swathy Prathap of Ame’s who believes that holiday gifts can come in more colours that red and green, sends out a selection of French artisan confection in boxes from her own Crafted Packs. She is behind almost all the cute macaron boxes in the different hampers you’ll be receiving this year. The rest are sourced from the Box of Wishes by Nashi Samir.
Candida Rodrigues of Sugar Bowl, Shazneen Ali at Indulgence and The Sugar Sifter Bhavana Baby have more elaborate hampers from the rest. These seasoned bakers of Cochin, had their work cut out from August planning every little detail from ribbons to festive twines and tags to go with theirs. While Candy opted for a rustic tree hamper with personalized ornaments from Indu Abel’s Boutique Tree, Shazneen sourced her red and silver pails she calls Santa’s gifts from Esta Martin of Little Things. Bhavana collaborated with Divya Dipu at Glee Packs for a see-through acrylic box she named the MistleToe. Sarah Zia Adeel of Fluff in a Cup has sent out pretty baby pink boxes of “All Things Sweet.” Diwia Thomas of PaperTrail India, the only manufacturer of craft boxes and many things eco-friendly in the city has a part in every hamper in form of boxes that contain cookies, brownies, cakes and granola jars.
The tradition of gift-giving is as old as we are, with each region marking its own occasions and reasons to care, therefore share. Say in Kerala, new sets of clothes, the onakodi, is distributed during the annual Onam celebrations ushering in the Malayalam New Year. The elders in the family give money mostly new coins to the younger ones as kaineetham for Vishu. In an earlier time, before Malayalee families were reduced to nuclear ones, the large extended families lived in adjacent homes and wicker baskets lined with the banana leaves filled to the brim with achhappams, kozhalappams, cheeda et al used to come from an aunt or a grandmother as an expression of joy.
Over the years, the hamper has evolved from care packages for home staff distributed on the day after Christmas to curated gift offerings to family, friends and clients. This year in particular, the home bakers of Cochin have gone on an overdrive that has put their customers in a dilemma. The more the choice, the more difficult the decision.
We quote Dickens again: “…the old year was preparing, like an ancient philosopher, to call his friends around him, and amidst the sound of feasting and revelry to pass gently and calmly away.” And we realize that gifting is in itself an art.