Christmas Cake and memories


by   Sharmini Rodrigo 

In late November the sojourn to Pettah is a must for me, prior to Christmas.

My destination the connecting lane between the entrance to Sea Street, a part of Bankshall Street, with its profusion of stalls selling dried fish. This was where Colombo’s Fish Market was once situated.

Prior to the Market being shifted to the environs of Kelaniya the waft of fish pervaded the very air. No more, and as I leave my trusty three wheeler and wade through puddles of  mud (if it has rained) braving the sun and the ever present dry fish pong - it is to this well known little shop we’ve been coming to for decades, to buy our Christmas cake ingredients !!!

"Why?" You May well ask. With ingredients easily ordered over the phone, and home delivered. Supermarket shopping in air conditioned comfort, Online and all else. Simply this ! " Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas " without this total experience! 

First the presenting of your list, if you’ve forgotten a vital ingredient, believe me, the gentleman owner will remind you - ( like he did for me this year), then on to the calculations, the payment and last of all - the wait!

My mother would accompany me when she could, and sit half perched on a high stool, within the confines of these cramped premises, enjoying the jostle and bustle.

Bags of Australian sultanas  local cherries (merely dyed orbs of pumpkin preserve) kilos of rulang((semolina) come hurtling down from an opening in the loft, where the weighing staff carry out their tasks -  to the packers down below, who’ve shouted up customer needs.

All done in the precision of a military exercise.  In order of purchase and payment, no favors granted here ! (even if they’ve seen your face for aeons) you take your turn, and you are dealt with efficiently. In the case of my mum and me, one year,  two figs were passed on to us surreptitiously! And we sneaked them into our mouths with shared merriment. Sometimes dried peaches. Everyone is not treated thus ... This  year I got a date!  A large luscious date!

Four year on since her demise, I miss my mum sorely at this cake making time, especially at the final mixing stage, when the creamed butter, sugar, and eggs are added in to the brandy soaked fruit and preserves, plus all else. Oh, she helped alright with the chopping. (Sorry no food processors or choppers for me). Everything is chopped by hand, the hard way, and nowadays sans domestic help.

It maybe hallucinatory, but I feel their presence, my mother, grandmother, great gran, around me at this time!! Or is it just the flood of memories that come to the fore at this special time of year...?!

I can see my great grandmother - Annie Beatrice Nelson née  Bertus, fair of skin and round as a great Dutch cheese, presiding over her army of servants at Asoka Gardens in Bambalapitiya in days of yore.  When preparations for the cake started in September, October. With the pumpkin preserve or "puhul dosi "as we call it, made at home. The same with that gnarled "funny face" chow chow".

These fruit/vegetable preserves are made in large vats  of boiling sugar. No small quantities, everything in that era was gargantuan. To serve family and friends who descended en masse at Christmas. raisins and sultanas were de-seeded by hand, washed and sun dried. The preserved ginger came in those lovely brown and  white pottery jars from China. My mum always spoke of the Maraschino cherries and cherry brandy that went into her grandmothers cake.

In contrast my grandmother Zena Lamb was a " wanderer ". I never knew her as a cakemaker and baker, but she was a marvelous cook. Turning out the most delicious soups and savouries and standing by our sides, as we ate, waiting for our delivery of unstinting approval.

Ammi - my mother Barbara Lamb Gunasekara,  had mastered the art. She made the rich cake pieces for ALL the family weddings, and orders for a thousand pieces was the norm. Our Christmas cake was quite a ritual too. Ammi had a lot of domestic help, and my ayah, Magalin, became so adept at the tasks that ammi could, in later years, leave her to it, in the sure knowledge that she knew what to do!

At the puhul dosi and cadjunut chopping stages I could always sneak a few morsels. Ever tried the  Puhul dosi and cadjunut combination? Do so, and savour the delights. Ammis trays of cake always went for baking to the bakery down Thimbirigasyaya road. Here in wood fired old fashioned ovens, the cakes had to be watched with care, so the chief baker was always given a good tip.

When my father and driver Sediris were unavailable, the old Morris Minor taxis were enlisted and we went in a convoy, with the trays.

In later years, off the trays went in three wheelers with Alice and Prema our helpers, safeguarding the treasure to Royal Bakery Wellawatte.

We waited anxiously for the return of the trays and the labels! When the trays returned hot off the ovens, my father and I were allowed to tear off the labels with the bits of cake sticking to the underside. Ah! Me!

Yes,I missed ammi at the mixing stage. Once I had qualified enough for the task, and earned the right to mix it all up - in the big ceramic basins we still possess, it was to have her come up and taste." A little more vanilla", "some almond" , "a drop or two more rose essence".

Ammi had her own traditions. Her Christmas breakfast, the Christmas dinners, which were open house to all friends and family. I remember getting 80 plates out for washing one year? (Do we still have 80 plates in this house? I wonder!)

Times change, the old ways are gone and over the years I’ve built up my own rituals and traditions. Most often not strictly adhered to, with half of "us" living overseas, and some Christmases spent Down Under. (Sorry kids but I HAVE to say it) Nothing beats the joys of our own Sri Lankan Christmas!

Here-  when  the cake is in the oven and the whole house is "scented"  with Christmas!;  when a few corner pieces are stealthily lopped off and tasted. And the cake "rests" until the almond flavored cadjunut paste goes on.  It starts, the wonder, the magic, that we carry within ourselves, in our hearts, it surfaces…

With Christmas music and carols played on the radio. - and the ‘Season’ starts for yours truly with the attendance at the Cathedral Carol Service. Christmases past -and the present intertwined. 

CHRIST In Christmas and the love that surrounds all, and the memories we carry. The joy of sharing and giving...that’s the best and blessed.

I wish a time of goodness and HIS grace upon us all.

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...