Around three tonnes of coconut shells fire the borma (wood-fired oven) in Kottayam, which bakes plum cakes that go under the label ‘Omana Paul’s’. When Omana Paul, the woman who set up the business, passed away seven years ago her former employees Shirley Jacob and husband Jacob (Biji) George took over the running of the business. This year, for Christmas, they are set to make around 3,500 plus plum cakes, a thousand fewer than last year.
Omana Paul began baking cakes, including plum cakes, commercially, in 1984, in Kottayam. Her youngest sister Laila Joseph recalls her late sister’s love for cooking, “She had a God-given talent for cooking. She used to help our mother in the kitchen, even when she was still in school and college, and was part of anything food-related happening there.” Omana, married to a Naval officer, loved entertaining, her sister remembers. Like any good host, she ensured that she put the best on the table.
Her love of cooking translated also to conducting cookery classes long before they became fashionable. “She used to conduct classes in Ernakulam, Chalakkudy, Thrissur and Kottayam, which were very well-attended. Those days around 160 participants, a huge number in the 1970s-80s, used to attend the sessions.” By the late 1980s, when she got into the catering business she was already baking cakes commercially.
Shirley, who is in her late 40s, recalls going over to Omana’s place as a school girl. Shirley’s mother worked there. “Kochamma (Omana) used to be very fond of cooking and baking, she would always be making something. I used to be very fond of being around her, watching and learning,” she says. When Omana started the business, Shirley would chip in with help daily after school, and later when she reached college and got married to Biji. The numbers were not huge, just around 50 cakes initially which grew to 75, then 100 and more as Omana’s reputation spread. “Back in the day we baked in electric ovens, as the quantities weren’t huge. A few years later, as the numbers grew, Kochamma decided we shift to the wood-fired borma ,” says Shirley. They have six employees.
After Omana’s death, the running of unit passed on to Shirley and Biji. Plum cakes are only for Christmas, their regular fare includes savoury eats such as samosa, cutlet, stuffed parathas, rolls and lumbia. This time of the year is busy with plum cakes. Preparations start early, in September, when the fruits are stewed and left to soak in the juices for a month to a month-and-a-half. These are stored in 15 four-ft tall, 100 litre drums. Baking starts by the last week of November.
The preparation of the borma is a lengthy process which starts with coconut shells being piled in and set on fire in order to heat the borma . Once hot, and the shells completely burnt, it is time to load it, after removing the ash. The cake tins are placed inside in neat rows, where they cook for more than two hours. The borma can fit in 55-60 cakes at a time and around 150-odd cakes are baked daily. The cakes are not packed as soon as they are done, they have to sit for a few days before, only then do the flavours soak in and the cake becomes nice and moist.
Baking the cakes in wood-fired oven adds to the cake’s shelf life, “the baking may take more time, the shelf life increase due the slow cooking. Also the it is a darker, deeper shade of brown,” Biji says. He says the secret of the cake lies in keeping the batches for at least a week or so for the juices seep and do their work. The batter for each batch of the cake is mixed before baking, not stored or mixed in advance. The ingredients include flour, caramelised sugar and butter, mixed with the soaked mix of nuts, raisins, dates, tutti-frooti, orange peel and spices. The baking starts in the last week of November so that by early December the cakes start arriving in the shops.
Cakes were not new to Omana, who had seen cakes being baked at home. Laila recalls 72 eggs being beaten, in two batches of 36 each for cakes for a church function under their mother’s supervision. “Our mother used to bake plum cakes, tea cakes...cakes were not new. We all grew up seeing all these being made, my sister would have inherited the talent from our mother.” Earlier the cakes were available in Kottayam but as word and fame spread, Biji and Shirley have buyers from across the country and the world.
The cakes, priced between ₹800-900 per kilo, are available online across sites such as placeoforigin.in, and in Kochi at Bikash Babu Sweets (Panampilly Nagar).