Friday, May 5, 2017

Wenger's - an establishment that changed the way Delhi ate its patisserie

The original article appeared in The Hindu - Stories from the oven - The Hindu
Read the unedited version here... 

Somewhere in the early 1924, an enterprising Swiss couple Mrs. Jeanne Strechi Wenger along with her husband H C Wenger began a catering venture for the British troops operating from Kashmere Gate called Wenger’s. Their food must have been good as in the then being built Connaught Place, a portion of the A Block was reserved to house Wenger’s. Wenger’s officially shifted to their present location, in early 1930s, with its confectionery and tea room  - Rendezvous (cafĂ©), La Mer (ball room) and Green Room (party room) spread over two floors. In true Raj style, during summers, Wenger’s downed its shutters to move to Wenger’s Simla, the summer capital. Soon a young Brij Mohan Tandan, joined as General Manager. In 1944, Mrs. Wenger sold the business to Tandan and retired to Dehradun.  Atul Tandon, current owner / partner who runs Wenger’s today with his brother – first cousin Aman Tandon recalls, “I still remember in the late 60s of going to Dehradun during summer holidays. In the evening we would visit Mrs. Wenger and she would treat us to homemade baked goodies and take us for a ride around town in her car. We used to call her Memsahib!”   

Tandan had learned the ropes of the business, and carried forth the legacy that the establishment spelt, the emphasis on quality and everything made in-house – proprietory. As Atul Tandon, says. “what my grandfather bought was the brand name, the utensils and some equipments which were there.  Over the years, we have innovated, closed some operations, introduced new variants, started the Deli, manufacturing at Noida and over hauled the production process.” Charanjeet Singh, manager, an old hand who joined Wenger’s in 1965 says, “then we had four types of pastries made using margarine - pineapple, strawberry, vanilla and chocolate. They cost Rs. 5 per dozen and people would buy a dozen or half a dozen and not less. Today, we have over 70 varieties of pastries all made from fresh cream which no one does. In chocolates there were 7 – 8 variety, now we have 22 varieties of chocolates.”

It does come as a surprise that a majority of the “European confectionery or patisserie products” were actually introduced by the Tandons. At one point of time, it also had a range of Indian mithais available. The ground floor patisserie shop is the only iconic landmark reminder.   

Wenger’s had the who’s who coming for its delights.  Atul Tandon laughs, “M F Husain would sit in the restaurant and speak to my Tayaji. He would doodle and sketch on the cotton cloth napkins and leave them behind, which would be promptly thrown into the dustbin by my Tayaji. It was considered a wasted napkin.”   Singh adds, “He used to walk in bare feet and he loved our Shammi kababs and Chicken patties.” He parts with more gems, “Actress Helen is fond of our wine chocolates and visited us often then. Atal Behari Vajpayee before becoming the PM would simply walk in and buy vegetarian products. The plum cake was a great gifting option to the Late Indira Gandhi.” It is still a popular gifting option.  From the over 250 products, it is the pineapple pastry, black forest cake, truffle which rule the roost. Traditional preparations like the plum cake, pudding are still made using the old recipe perfected by Mrs. Wenger with improvisation. Easter specials of hot cross buns, marzipan and Easter eggs work well. Recently custard based peach tart pastry has been launched as also Panettone.

With the onslaught of competition, Wenger’s has managed a fine balance of uncompromising on quality with affordable prices. Fruits are soaked in rum for over a month and the long procedure is followed. However, what touches the heart most is the old world hospitality of personalised service, polite unhurried charm a throwback to the times of what Delhi once was. 

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Hall of Nations – Pragati Maidan – A Raj Rewal Creation

Remember any structure as one moves towards the zoo towards Pragati Maidan. One remembers the Purana Qila, and then the honey combed structures within the Pragati Maidan. The structures an integral part of the exhibition area usually evokes memories of innumerable exhibitions held there. The best of all the exhibition, the India International Trade Fair. For most, it visually reiterates that Pragati Maidan has been reached.

The space within the hall of nations is stupendous and can accommodate almost anything. Probably since this was designed to be a general exhibition ground without any specifics, the area was thus designated. The architect, the well acclaimed Raj Rewal.

Their website - describes the structure thus, “ Building Type – Exhibition, Year – 1972, “ The Permanent Exhibition Complex is designed to form the focus of 130 acres of Exhibition ground designed by Raj Rewal in New Delhi. The design was evolved to meet the constraints of time, availability of materials and labour but to above all to reflect symbolically and technologically, India’s intermediate technology in the 25th year of its independence. The depth of the structural system was utilized as a Sun breaker and conceived of in terms of the traditional 'jali', a geometrical pattern of perforation that serves to obstruct directs rays of the harsh Sun while permitting air circulation. The main pavilion of the Hall of Nations has a clear span of 78 metres and a height. varying from three metres to 21 metres, thereby providing a vast capacity for items to be exhibited, from books to bulldozers.”

The Halls of Industries and Nehru Pavillion add to the design impact.
This defines the ethos of the building. For me, like countless others, the site of the building is the sense of an exhibition ground where one got to see some extremely interesting and new things. It was a place where I was carted by my parents during the weekends to see the exhibitions. Earlier, it lasted a good month and was extended on popular demand. Unlike, now there were no traffic jams. It was a nice big place with plenty of trees. Evenings were beautiful with lights, music almost like a fairyland. The banners on the trees, the balloons all added to a child’s wonder. The same wonder relives when I make an annual pilgrimage to the IITF now of course during the business hours on the business days. The excitement and enthusiasm still remains. How else can I describe the countless new crafts, textiles, food that I have discovered there.

At the time the Hall of Nations was built, it was a symbol of the growing India, the modern Delhi and India. The Hall of Nation was a symbol put on postage stamps and it was glorified. The ITPO or Indian Trade Promotion Organisation has been wanting to demolish this and build a glitzy more modern exhibition centre. There have been appeals to save the structure. What will be the fate? The future will decide. For now, enjoy the building capture it and feel the pulse of what Delhi once was.