Taste of Life: This baker’s cake was the pride of Poona weddings

ByChinmay Damle
Aug 31, 2023 12:13 AM IST

The cakes baked by Pearse, after setting up a bakery and confectionery at 22-23, Apollo Street, Bombay, gained popularity in Poona and all over India

Pune: One fine morning in 1870, DH Sykes, the celebrated photographer, and James Pearse, travelled to Gharpuri (also known as Elephanta) caves from Apollo Bunder in a steamer owned by the Watson’s Esplanade Hotel.

The cakes baked by Pearse, after setting up a bakery and confectionery at 22-23, Apollo Street, Bombay, gained popularity in Poona and all over India. (SOURCED)
The cakes baked by Pearse, after setting up a bakery and confectionery at 22-23, Apollo Street, Bombay, gained popularity in Poona and all over India. (SOURCED)

Upon reaching the entrance of the main cave, Pearse felt that there was some structure buried beneath the ground near the courtyard. The two men immediately started digging and discovered a flight of steps filling the space between two pillars and leading up from the courtyard. The existence of the steps was not apparently suspected, as there was no hint given of them in any previous work related to the caves.

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Pearse and Sykes reported their discovery to James Burgess, who was then the secretary of the Bombay Geographical Society and later headed the Archaeological Survey of Western India. Burgess congratulated the duo and included Sykes’s photographs in his scholarly work “The Rock Temples of Elephanta”. Sykes passed away shortly after, but Pearse went on to write a guide to Elephanta caves. The booklet boasted some beautiful photographs of the caves by Sykes and showed Pearse’s deep knowledge and understanding of Indian History, mythology, and Hinduism.

But how is this related to the foodscape of Poona? A year after discovering the steps at Elephanta, Pearse established a bakery and confectionery at 22-23, Apollo Street, Bombay. The cakes he baked quickly gained popularity all over India. So much so that, till the end of the nineteenth century, no big wedding took place without a cake baked by Pearse. No bakery in Poona could compete with Pearse’s wedding cake until Cornaglia and Muratore set up their confectioneries after 1895. No wedding cake, no future happiness, was an old and deep-rooted belief and the cake had firmly become embedded in the quaint mosaic of the British wedding customs. Almost all high-profile weddings in Poona proudly displayed cakes baked by Pearse & Co. For a wedding in Poona, Pearse would bake the cake in the city if he was catering the reception or the cake would be sent from Bombay in a special carriage. Pearse specialised in wedding cakes with royal icing, the white icing used to decorate Queen Victoria’s cake at her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840. His wedding cakes were known to have innovative flavours like strawberry and champagne, and pistachio and lemon. Vanilla, blueberry, and chocolate were the “regular” flavours. He was known to construct a seven or nine-tier cake effortlessly, with each tier having a different flavour.

Several newspapers reporting Poona weddings in the nineteenth century never failed to mention Pearse’s cakes. The “Poona Observer” reported what it declared to have been one of the grandest weddings ever had in Poona, which took place on October 21, 1891, at “Polo Vista”, the residence of General BH Pottinger and Mrs Pottinger. The marriage ceremony was performed in St Mary’s Church, which was very tastefully decorated for the occasion. The church was crowded, not only by the large number of guests, but by a very fair gathering of the Poona public, with whom Captain Hobday, the groom, and Ms Pottinger, the bride, had always been popular favourites.

The wedding party next assembled at “Polo Vista”, where the time-honoured custom, among the military, of the bride cutting the wedding cake with the bridegroom’s sword was followed. The cake was baked by Pearse in Poona. The guests queued up to marvel at the cake, and only after everyone had had a look at it, it was cut.

The private residence of Ms Beck, the aunt of the bride, at Ghorpadi, was the venue for the reception on Thursday, September 29, 1884, when Quartermaster-Sergeant WR Weller, Ninety-Third Highlanders, was married to Miss Annie Elizabeth Beck, the daughter of a warrant officer. A large number of friends from the Ninety-Third and East Lancashire regiment were in attendance, and the bright costumes of the ladies together with the uniforms of the military representatives present, contrived to give a jovial appearance to the beautiful house-garden. The presents to the bride and bridegroom, which were numerous and costly, were on view and were greatly admired. But the star of the evening was the seven-tier cake baked by Pearse. The flavour was vanilla and according to the “Poona Observer”, the cake was so beautifully decorated that the bride did not wish to cut it.

The name Pearse & Co had been a household word in Bombay among rich and poor, and old and young, as suppliers of high-class English and Italian confectionery, pastry, cakes, bread, and biscuits. The headquarters of the firm – trading as Pearse & Co – were in Apollo Street, Fort, Bombay. In 1917, an establishment was opened in Princess Street under the name of James Pearse & Co, with the object of affording facilities for their numerous customers who resided at a distance from the Fort business quarter.

The premises at each place were attractive, comfortable, and handsomely furnished in a modern style, and they had been fitted throughout with electric lights and fans. The firm were tea and coffee specialists; their confectionery, sweets, and other delicacies were unsurpassed in quality by any other purveyors in Bombay; their freshly baked bread defied competition; their kiln-dried flour, and “Crew” and “Cabin” biscuits (which were their own specialities) were deservedly popular; and all kinds of the best brands of English provisions, including fish, bacon, ham, cheese, and other goods, were kept in stock.

Dinners, lunches, teas, oysters and other dainty suppers prepared by master hands in the art of cooking, were served in faultless style by courteous waiters at Pearse’s restaurant. In 1884, it served steaks, chops, cutlets, ham and bread, rice and curry, mutton patties, ham sandwiches, ice creams, and cream soda for four to eight annas each.

The Pearse bakery at the Marine Street Cross Lane premises was equipped with thoroughly up-to-date machinery and plant, and it was the only one in the city in which patent smokeless steam ovens were used. The firm was a contractor to the Admiralty authorities and the Government of Bombay, while their numerous private customers resided not only in Bombay and its suburbs, but also in several parts of India. “Pearse’s Guide to Elephanta” contained several letters of appreciation from places like Amaravati, Nasik, Bhuj, Ahmedabad, Karachi, and Ahmednagar. He even catered at far-off places like Nandgaon and Dongargarh in the Central Provinces at ceremonies organised by the Nagpore and Chhattisgarh State Railway to celebrate the extension of railway lines. His wedding cakes were regularly shipped to Aden and Zanzibar. No wonder Pearse & Co gained a distinguished reputation among a large circle of patrons. The firm had been awarded many gold medals at various exhibitions.

I do not know what happened to Pearse before his firm passed into the hands of Messrs Oomrigar & Sons who owned a distillery at Uran and were wine merchants themselves. The building owned by Pearse was purchased by Sorabjee Ookerjee Oomrigar. But the popularity of this famous restaurant grew with the years and was at the forefront of catering establishments in Bombay for many decades.

Before establishing his confectionery, Pearse was likely the manager at Oriental Press in Bombay where “The Bombay Guardian” was printed. “Pearse’s Guide to Elephanta” was printed by one Josiah Clark at Devonport. “The Bombay Guardian” regularly published lists of passengers travelling to and arriving from Britain. Pearse’s name features in the list almost every other year till 1902. He travelled to Southampton which indicates that he might have belonged to Devonport, which is not far from there.

I wish I knew more about him.

Chinmay Damle is a research scientist and food enthusiast. He writes here on Pune’s food culture. He can be contacted at chinmay.damle@gmail.com

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