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Park Street’s Flurys: a metaphor of times past

That a restaurant tells the story of a city and its people struck me forcibly some months ago when a cousin by marriage — who had left his hometown Kolkata when it was still Calcutta — made a demand. He wanted to eat some chicken patties. And not just any patties, mind you, but patties from Flurys.

So, since he is an in-law (and has a good collection of single malts), I actually managed to get some for him all the way to Delhi. I realised that the cousin didn’t just want to eat the patties of the famous Kolkata tearoom, he wanted a slice of the city.

And that explains why there is actually a book on the eatery, called Flurys of Calcutta: The Cake that Walked. Written by journalist Bachi Karkaria and published by Flurys, a unit of the Apeejay Surrendra Group, it not only tells the story of the tearoom, which turns 82 this year, but also of the city as it was then, and as it is now.

Flaky magic

Imagine Calcutta in the 20s, bustling with life, with chic restaurants and bars that other cities could not even dream of. In 1927, a Swiss couple, Joseph and Freida Flury, started the tea room in Park Street. They called it Flury’s, and that was its name for the first 60 years. “Calcutta’s reputation for India’s finest restaurants came courtesy four Swiss and Italian gentlemen who became institutions, literally,” Karkaria writes in her inimitable style in the 2007 book. The four were Flury, Trinca, Firpo and Ferrazzini.

Park Street was The Street. She writes about the people who were regulars there — actors, school kids, industrialists, homemakers — and the employees who spent all their working years at Flurys, which was taken over by Jit Paul in 1965. Pre-Independence, the city’s wealthy — Bengali, Jewish, Armenian and Parsi — were the patrons. Post-Independence, another community, the Marwaris, “began to take over the metaphor that was Park Street,” she writes. With the Marwaris, baked beans got an Indian touch. “Baked beans had arrived in the 1940 with the U.S. army, which used Calcutta as an R&R base,” she writes. Baked beans on toast got a makeover with chopped onions and green chillies sprinkled on the beans spread over hot, buttered toast.

Among the city’s celebs often found at Flurys, an old-timer recalls, were actors Uttam Kumar and Soumitra Chatterjee. Actor-dancer Vyjayanthimala was said to have been addicted to the caramels of Flurys and always took back a large box to Bombay. I enjoyed reading the bit about Raj Kapoor, who, one elderly employee is quoted as saying, “simply adored Flurys’ chicken patties”. Apparently, every time he was in Calcutta, he would visit Flurys and “polish off at least 4-5 at a sitting.”

Once, during a shoot in the city, the director called the employee and said, “Hazra babu, please reserve my you-know-what.” Hazra babu put aside six patties, and waited for him to come. “Just as we were about to close, he came huffing up, and wolfed them down. ‘You know,’ he said, his blue eyes twinkling, ‘I skipped lunch because I knew I was going to get this.’ He lifted every last flaky crumb off the plate with his plump fingers,” Hazra babu recalls.

Not being from Kolkata, Flurys doesn’t wield the same magic on me as it does over its denizens. But I know how an eatery — or a street — can be a symbol of the past. If you are in San Francisco, as the old song goes, you must put some flowers in your hair; if you are in Kolkata, don’t miss Park Street. Within its glittering fairy lights are the sepia tones of nostalgia.

The writer likes reading and writing about food as much as he does cooking and eating it. Well, almost.

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Printable version | Apr 7, 2020 3:13:01 AM |

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