I gingerly lift the waist-high wooden plank that cordons off swarming devotees of bread and cakes from the baking gods, who turn out the confection that the seaport of Thoothukudi (or to give its anglicised name Tuticorin) is celebrated for — macaroons.
Squeezing into the tiny space between the wall and the display cabinets, I emerge behind the sales counter of a bakery that opens out into a narrow room lined with gilded cardboard boxes. The anterior chambers of the bakeries in this city, like those behind church altars where garments and vessels are stored, are privy only to a select few. It takes much cajoling, coaxing and running around in circles till the custodians of confectionery secrets condescend to allow us a peep into their mystery shrouded rituals. That too only after ascertaining I am not from the income tax department or a nosy apprentice of a rival baker.
What strikes me as strange is that I am yet to spot the macaroons, though all around me orders are flying and so are the cardboard boxes. The macaroons are missing among the tempting puffs and plum cakes that dress up counters. “This is not a roadside snack,” my local friend accompanying me informs quite snobbishly. “One kg costs Rs.600,” she nods to the price list, where the macaroon tops the list. The snack that sells by reputation alone has an elitist air to it and understandably its makers are viewed as royalty, so much so that the hole-in-the-wall bakeries double up as landmarks in a city synonymous with pearl fishing, feisty freedom fighters and salt pans.
“There was a time when we used to store the macaroons in glass jars. But the rise in demand meant frequently opening them to transfer the contents,” says Suresh of Gnanam Bakery, established 45 years ago by his grandfather Isravel who named the bakery after his wife. “Watch,” says Suresh, finally producing a macaroon. “It won’t taste the same five minutes later. The macaroon tends to absorb moisture and is best stored away in air-tight containers.”
Chellappa, who has been making macaroons for 30 years, places one on my palm. Unlike other Indian pedas with ethnic flavours, the Thoothukudi macaroon is a European export and a vestige of colonisation, albeit reinvented in a unique shape. For around the world, the macaroon is mostly flat and filled with almonds, chocolate or coconut; only in Thoothukudi, it is stuffed with cashew and shaped into a cone with a round base, bulging middle and a pointed peak.
I sink my teeth into the crunchy sugary tip that gives way to gluey and gooey cashew crumbs. For all the secrecy that shrouds the pastry, deconstructing it reveals just three ingredients — eggs, cashew nuts and sugar. No water, no oil and no secret ingredient! The secret rather lies in technique — in blending each ingredient into the hat-shaped pastry, says macaroon master Chellappa. “It involves using high grade cashew nuts (most shops source it from Kerala), knowing when to add each ingredient and baking in firewood ovens.” Suresh paces to and fro, wrapping loaves of bread and heading back to answer my questions. “I challenge you to get the shape or taste of the Thoothukudi macaroon at home in an electric oven or microwave. We have tried, it never works.”
When I get curious about the origins of the pastry, I’m directed to Dhanalakshmi Bakery, one of the oldest around town, where Thoothukudi’s association with the confection is believed to have been shaped, much before Independence. Though the bakery has lost its yesteryear prominence, I find it still makes the nuttiest of macaroons, with the base choc-a-bloc of cashew granules. In the kitchen, I peep into a closet size hollow kiln built of brick, inside which are rows and rows of pearly white macaroons, just baked. “The firewood furnace is just right for macaroons in the morning as it reaches the ideal temperature after all the baking the previous evening,” says owner Velammal. But how does she get the temperature right? “O, I put my hand inside the wall of the kiln and I know when it’s right.” Pointing to a portrait of the late Arunachalam Pillai, his daughter Velammal claims it was her father who popularised the macaroons in Thoothukudi. “He worked in a confectionery at Tiruchi and later at Spencers in Chennai and learnt to bake cakes and other European confections from Anglo-Indians and foreigners there. He came here and began selling pastries, and the macaroons which he shaped like this. Many ‘masters’ or confectioners learnt from my father and set up their own bakeries.”
Though many of the bakers in the city acknowledge Velammal’s story, Dharmalingam at Ganesh Bakery, arguably the most popular in the city (courtesy the milling crowds at any time of the day), believes that macaroons must have been around in Thoothukudi much earlier, but gained popularity in Arunachalam’s period. “The Dutch and Portuguese occupied Thoothukudi before the British and the fondness for continental pastries over Indian snacks is seen here even today. The ships that anchored off the shores of Thoothukudi must have required local labour. These men improvised on the flat almond macaroons.” Macaroons at Ganesh Bakery are handed out in gift-wrapping paper. “What matters as much as quality is the way you present the product,” Dharmalingam says.
Unlike many of their counterparts, folks at Ganesh believe mass production calls for modernisation, and macaroons are baked both in firewood and electric ovens. I watch as men in vests crack the egg gently, pouring in the gummy albumin inside a vessel, while the yolk hovers precariously in the shell. The rest of the ingredients go in one after the other as given in the recipe (see box).
Around half a dozen men stand over a table squeezing the cones as little peaks materialize on greased trays. The trays are assembled on a rack and wheeled into the massive glass fronted oven. As I nibble at the macaroons that scream of sugar than cashew at Ganesh Bakery, I wonder if Dharmalingam has tried his hand at export. Like many of his peers, he notes, “The delicate crumbly texture of the macaroon does not lend itself to transportation over long distances.”
But industrialist S.G. Ponseelan, who entered the confectionery business recently is determined to make the city’s coveted confection available to pastry worshippers in other cities. Packed in aluminium packs and Halal certified, Abi Macaroons guarantees a shelf life over two months. “We have come up with baby macaroons to minimise risk of breakage during transportation,” says Ponseelan who got started with the macaroon production after a company producing miniature versions adored by his daughter, closed down. The macaroons maybe a treat for children but miss out on the fulsome delight of crunching into a conventionally packed one.
Though improvisations like macaroons with pistas and chocolates have been tried by bakers, as Sridhar, proprietor at Shanti Macaroons established in 1964, will tell you, cashew macaroons are unparalleled in popularity. Sridhar has two stores slated to open in Chennai and Bangalore, but insists that the macaroons will be carted from Thoothukudi. “I have tried baking them in firewood ovens in other cities with masters from Thoothukudi, but the taste was not the same.” Though none of the ingredients is sourced from the city, almost all bakers I have met swear that attempts to produce the macaroons elsewhere have failed miserably. Some say it is the expertise of veteran macaroon masters, others believe it is the firewood ovens, but everyone admits to a certain je ne sais quoi. “Perhaps it’s something to do with this land, there’s something in the air here,” Sridhar smiles.
Interestingly, however varied their techniques might be, I notice that they are unequivocally similar across major bakeries. The paper cones that give the confections their distinctive shape is shaped out of thick newspapers — all invariably The Hindu . A utility for the newspaper that I never dreamt of!
HOW IT’S MADE
Eggs 12 to 15
Cashewnuts (Some recommend 1/4 kg)
Sugar 1/2 kg.
Powder cashew nuts, set aside. Crack eggs and separate the whites ensuring not a single drop of yolk falls in. With an egg beater, whisk the egg whites in a large bowl. When they turn frothy, start adding sugar little by little while continuing to vigorously whip up egg whites. Keep beating till the mixture rises into stiff peaks. Gently fold in the powdered cashews. Scoop batter into a stiff paper cone and squeeze cone to shape pointed macaroons. These macaroons are generally baked in firewood ovens, but baking them in electric ovens at 70 degrees may also achieve a similar result.