It’s a week before Christmas in 2019, and mist has enveloped the little town of Kodaikanal, swirling around trees and locals who rush about completing their morning chores: shopping, a stop at the cobblers, the bank or ATM. It is cold, but there is an air of festivity around town, with the twinkle of fairy lights and baubles on Christmas trees piercing through the dense morning fog.
Near Seven Roads junction, a little crowd has gathered around the town’s iconic bakery: Daily Bread’s Pastry Corner. Servers hand out steaming cups of freshly brewed filter coffee, patiently taking orders for black or milky brew, hot chocolate or lemon tea. Around 11 am, a delivery van pulls up outside and the staff rush out to carry in trays of warm pastries, breads, pizza, and cookies.
The irresistible aroma of freshly baked goods wafts around the tiny shop, and customers peer in to see if their favourites have arrived. ‘Have the cinnamon buns come in?’ someone asks, others want brownies, cream buns, doughnuts, or cookies. Since it’s Christmas week, trays of plum cake in shiny gift wrapping, packets of cut-out cookies, chocolate truffles and other Christmas specials also appear through the day. Every item the bakery produces has the freshness and flavours of homemade favourites. Perhaps that is its appeal—or is there more?
Pastry Corner may seem like just another small-town pastry shop but it is a Kodaikanal institution with deep roots in the community. Its story begins five kilometres away, in an old stone bakery in Vilpatti village, in the home of Prasanna and Meenakshi Ghosh, the brother-sister duo who have run the place since 1991.
The Ghosh family are Kodai stalwarts. Dr Ghosh, the father of Meenakshi and Prasanna, was a world-renowned osteopath who moved to Kodaikanal in 1948. His wife Roshan Ghosh, was a famed Bharata Natyam dancer, part of the Vajifdar Sisters Trio. Their accomplishments alone could fill a book, but in Kodaikanal, they were known simply as ‘Jhinnah Doctor’, and Mrs. Ghosh, the dance teacher at Presentation Convent and Kodaikanal International School. The doctor continued his practice, treating locals (and dignitaries like Jawaharlal Nehru!) at his home, and Mrs Ghosh taught a generation of young girls (including this writer’s daughter, Resham), the classical dance form.
At some point, Dr Ghosh built a wood-fired oven in the stone basement of their home but it lay unused for many years, till their son, Prasanna, decided to bake a few loaves of bread with the help of a local baker. They were received with much appreciation, and the idea of starting a bakery serving the local community was born.
In keeping with the ideals of his father, Prasanna kept the prices reasonable, without compromising on quality. Meenakshi contributed by adding new items, looking for the best recipes and then testing each item till it met their standards. She admitted that keeping the selling price down was often difficult, as the prices of commodities like wheat flour, sugar and milk soared. But it was a commitment they would keep. From bread, the list soon expanded to a range of pastries, jams and natural ice creams, when Daily Bread’s Pastry Corner opened its doors twenty years ago, first at Seven Roads and later at its current location.
Where the action Is
Back at the shop, it’s just another pre-pandemic Christmas week. Pastry Corner is the centre of many a funny anecdote. Someone has ordered a birthday cake for ‘Tyson’–but the icing spelt out ‘Happy Birthday Bison’. The typo is quickly corrected with an icing bag and the customer is appeased. The nuns from an orphanage in Shenbaganur village are in town for the day. They are treated to a tray of coffee and cream cakes, and the menu for a special treat for their young charges is decided: pastries and their favourite egg puffs. A flustered tourist has left his bag with all his possessions on the bus that morning, and is offered coffee and sweet buns as he makes frantic calls. The town’s beggars (all addressed by their names) come by for their complimentary tea and snack, and a group of carol singers led by a portly Santa Claus stop for hot chocolate.
One particular Pastry Corner customer stands out. One morning, when I stopped by for a cup of coffee, I watched in amazement as a macaque walked up to the counter for his favourite cream buns, which the salesman handed over with exaggerated courtesy. The animal calmly took it and went over to the bench outside, where he squeezed in between two startled customers and relished his snack. Fortunately, there was a cream bun kept aside for him that day; if not, I was told, he would throw a fit, baring his teeth and mumbling angrily at the staff.
Most locals ask for egg sandwiches, soft white bread slices stuffed with a creamy mayonnaise egg filling, or the coriander chutney sandwich with a hint of spice, and the trays empty quickly. ‘There’s a special something in this chutney, and in the mayonnaise, what is it?’, someone murmurs. Others come for pizza, or the cream cakes which come in three flavours, butterscotch, pineapple and Black Forest. Tourists from cities are amazed at the quality and prices. ‘This would sell for more than three times this price anywhere else, and you can taste the fresh cream, butter and fruits used here,’ Kannan, a regular customer from Chennai gushed in praise. He had only one complaint: ‘If you come too late, bad luck, your favourites would have disappeared.’
IT professional and art writer Amjad Majid, who moved to Kodai from Delhi a year ago, says, ‘I have seen tourists make visits to Pastry Corner, many document their visit and post it on YouTube, and that speaks for itself. Everything is special here, from the spicy pizzas and muffins to a humble cup of tea. For, Pastry Corner has a history of elaboration, of tasting and testing out what works and what doesn’t. The result is a series of food and beverages that are localised, and have that Pastry Corner stamp on them.’ Majid, who has lived in Argentina, Spain, China, and the US, and is familiar with the coffee shop culture, observes, ‘In most cities and towns, there is that one distinct place with a loyal following. Here it is Pastry Corner; run by a local family, rooted in the community, a cultural and culinary Kodai landmark.’
His words remind me of ‘Leaf’ Tulsinathan, an old resident of Kodaikanal, who walked into Pastry Corner one morning to ask for his favourite, avocado ice cream. A regular customer, he had been ailing for a while and had made the long trip to town just for this treat; he was disappointed to hear they didn’t have any in stock. ‘I don’t have much time left, you know,’ he reminded them. Pandyan, their head salesman, quickly called the staff at the bakery to prepare the ice cream, as a special order, as this was now a discontinued item.
‘The bakery opens by 7 each morning, and from then on it is busy producing the range of baked goods that are loaded on to the delivery vans that run up and down all day,’ Meenakshi tells me. ‘A lot of planning goes into the running of this business, and it has taken years to get it right.’ At the store, deliveries arrive at the store at 9 am (coffee and tea), 10 am (pizza, cream buns, sandwiches, cakes and cookies), 1.30 pm (more sandwiches, bread, paneer and spinach rolls), and 3 pm, when puffs, pear cake and coconut bread arrive just in time for tea. Nothing is kept for the next day, and any surplus is shared with the staff.
Back in Vilpatti, the bakery shuts down and the intense cleaning process starts, every pot, tray and work surface must be scrubbed down. I have witnessed this meticulous process, when I spent an afternoon at the bakery, some years back, marveling at their commitment. Is this what makes this small town bakery special, then, a dedication to their customers?
‘It is perhaps the reason why Pastry Corner evokes that warmth and cosiness associated with home, as if you are served your favourite foods directly from your grandma’s or auntie’s kitchens,’ says Majid.
The glory days
Till the pandemic hit the town, the long benches outside the shop were invariably crowded with a motley mix of local residents and tourists, sharing stories and news from across the world. Coffee and tea shops have always provided an ideal space for discussion or an impromptu debate, and Pastry Corner is undoubtedly Kodaikanal’s favourite ‘adda’. You never knew who you could run into at Pastry Corner: writers, actors, artists, industrialists, holy men, and politicians, they all stop by.
Ram Dev, a farmer and hotelier who moved to Kodaikanal in 1978, is a regular visitor with a long connection with the Ghosh family. An ardent admirer of Dr Ghosh, who he met when he first moved here, Ram Dev says, ‘I am so happy his children have found their own way of continuing his legacy. This is what he would have wanted, a bakery with quality food for the common man, at prices he can afford.’
Sitting on the long benches just outside, sipping coffee and watching our little world go by was once a routine ‘time-pass’ for many residents and summer visitors. A frequent visitor myself, Pastry Corner was a must on my forays into town, making time to linger on and chat as I slowly sipped coffee. Over the years, much has changed. Meenakshi married and moved down to the plains, the old wood-fire oven was shut down as firewood was not economical, and the monkey did not come around for cream buns anymore. The pandemic brought more changes.
Once the first lockdown was lifted, the benches were replaced by a thick rope barrier across the entrance. Now, customers must queue up to order, and conversation is limited as they maintain the required distance. ‘It is hard to serve people across this barricade,’ says Pandyan, who has worked at Pastry Corner for 22 years. He misses the old days before the pandemic, when people would stop to chat, enquire about each other’s lives. He knew all the regulars and their favourites, right down to their sugar preferences.
Masked and armed with sanitizers and sprays, customers now leave with parcels or scurry away to the side to eat and drink, hurriedly. As Kodaikanal recoups, slowly finding its feet in this new normal, there is hope that change will bring back the small things, too: a time when you could sit down for a coffee at a street cafe, meet old friends, or chat with a stranger about the vagaries of life.