Taste of life: The art of baking... Viva la Italia in amche Pune
“It is the Italians who in the Indies have taught the English to live with refinement, to eat less crudely than they once did. Do not be surprised if the English tell you that without the Italians in the Indies, you would only have canned rice and preserved meat, and preserved meat and canned rice at the table”, wrote the Italian explorer and journalist Arnaldo Cipolla in his travelogue “In the flame of India”.
Italian confectioners and chefs had earned high praise in British India where they were well known among European settlers and the Indian elite.
They belonged to a migrant minority of traders and entrepreneurs, who sought to take advantage of a new world of commercial and economic opportunities opening up in India after the birth of the Raj.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Italian food was introduced in Calcutta, Bombay and Poona, thanks to Federico Peliti and Felice Cornaglia, restaurateurs and professional caterers.
Several guidebooks in the nineteenth and the 20th centuries advised Europeans travelling to India to have at least one meal at Peliti’s (in Calcutta and Simla) and F Cornaglia (in Bombay and Poona) because ‘their elegant but comfortable furnished rooms, sheltered from the heat of an Indian sun and cooled by the use of electric fans, present the most fascinating opportunities for the young and the old alike to enjoy those periods of relaxation which the occasion offers; while at the same time they are served, in the best European style, with delicacies of the most delectable manner, manufactured by the princes in the art of confectionary.”
F Cornaglia in Poona boasted of a spacious tea-room and a shop. A billiards room was added later. It was a favourite resort for afternoon tea for many Europeans. The restaurant was a 5000 sqft hall with chandeliers and furniture imported from Europe. It had French, English and Italian dishes on its menu.
Till the early 1920s, F Cornaglia and Merwanjee Cursetjee on East Street were the only establishments in Poona to have permit for consumption of wine on their premises.
A very large business at F Cornaglia was carried on in the manufacture of wedding and Italian, French and English cakes (English plum, madeira, currant, almond), sweets of endless varieties (French and Neapolitan tarts decorated with fruits, meringues, torta barozzi, sfogliatelle, macaroon, seadas, cannoli, almond chocolates, nougats, pralines, crystallised fruits, fondants, pezzi duri, truffles), ice creams, ice wafers, ice puddings and pastries of all kinds.
Some exotic desserts used and exhibited for sale in the restaurant were made in Carignano in a factory set up by Peliti and imported specially for connoisseurs.
Cornaglia also sold Russian caviar, prime cuts of ham, salami, pastrami, cheeses (gorgonzola, parmesan, gruyere), French and Italian wines and liqueurs and cigars from Havana.
Every year, native newspapers in Bombay would be flooded with advertisements featuring Christmas cakes and desserts from Cornaglia’s confectionary.
In 1895, plain Christmas cakes were priced at Re. 1 per piece. Chocolate iced cakes were charged 4 annas more.
All the cakes bore the stamp – F. CORNAGLIA.
Catering was undertaken for wedding parties, entertainment and picnics. F Cornaglia were caterers by Royal Appointment to HE The Governor of Bombay, in addition to holding similar warrants from almost all the Viceroys of India since the time of Lord Ripon; they were official restaurateurs to several clubs in Bombay and Poona; and they entered into contracts for the supply of all refreshments to Indian chiefs on special occasions, and for tiger – shooting parties.
Around 1920, F Cornaglia in Poona was taken over by a new European management. It shut down sometime around the 1940s. By 1935, the branch at Medows Street in Bombay (presently Nagindas Master Road) had shut down.
The one on Esplanade Road (presently Mahatma Gandhi road) stayed in business till early 1970s with Indian owners.
Cornaglia’s bakery with the same name still exists in South Bombay, but the present owners have never heard of him.
Peliti died in 1914 in Italy and his restaurants shut down due to fire and events centred on the Second World War. Only the original marble plaque outside the main entrance of the Governor’s House, where Peliti’s was located in Calcutta, reminds one of its glorious past.
And then there’s Villa Carignano which Peliti built in Mashobra.
Peliti’s Vermut, a vermouth manufactured in Turin, Italy, is based faithfully on the liqueur Peliti produced for an official visit by the Prince of Wales, Edward VII, in 1877, using a blend of Indian spices, Piedmontese flowers, absinthe and Muscat wine, and has recently been revived by his family in Italy.
Italians never considered India as a final destination; they used to go back home at the age of retirement, or even earlier, handing over their businesses to younger members of the family or relatives–in–law. Did Cornaglia go back to Carignano? I wish I knew.