(A photo of Charly’s Bakery, as found on the Cape Town daily photo blog)
“I’m expecting gifts and cake,” she demands jokingly. We’re on a three day puppetry training workshop, and it’s her birthday the next day. We’ve been thrown together under typical workshop conditions: mixed up with a bunch of people of different ages and backgrounds. I’ve never met them before, but we’re working pretty intensively together, so there’s a lot invested in getting along, with much mutual encouragement and enthusiasm.
We quiz her on what kind of cake she likes. I’ve noticed that she’s away from home – her family is in Natal, and it sounds like she’s crashing on a friend’s couch for a few days for the duration of the workshop. I make a mental note: if there’s time before the next day’s session, I might pick up some cupcakes or something.
The next day, as it turns out, I do have some time. Not enough time to make cupakes, which would’ve been my favourite option, but enough time to go and buy some. Where to go? If I were still at home, first stop would be Denise’s Delights, a little home industry on Sea Point main road, where you can get a killer chocolate cake like your granny might’ve made. Or carrot cake or whatever. But I was already in the city bowl.
There are the supermarkets, but I don’t want supermarket cake. I want something pretty and surprising. Could head across town to Melissa’s for one of their overpriced but gorgeous polka-dot cakes. It seems a bit extravagant. And I need lunch before the workshop, and don’t feel like one of Melissa’s crazily extortionate plates of food. There’s Lazari down the road, which would be great for lunch, but not for buying a whole cake. Hmm. There’s the French patisserie, Cassis Paris, in the Gardens Centre, but they’re better for decadent individual pieces of confectionery heaven – a gorgeous cube of Opera gateau, or a one-serving Sacher Torte.
I’m about to capitulate and head to Woolworths (that’s our loca version of M&S to readers in the UK) when I remember: Charly’s Bakery! Charly’s Bakery has been an institution at the bottom of Roeland Street for years, and recently moved round the corner to Canterbury Street. I’d been waiting for an excuse (or an opportunity) to head in there for a slice of one of their legendary savoury tarts (I swear these were high on the list of things I sorely missed during my year away from SA!!)
The new premises are in a very UN-savoury little bit of Cape Town, as the heavy grille-work over the windows is there to remind you. The bakery juts up alongside a homeless shelter, and a budget veggie cash-and-carry, and a very dilapidated looking hotel. But inside, it’s like hitting the magical fantasy universe of koekbakkery (that’s cake-making to you buitelanders).
Cupcakes in half a dozen shades of neon; psychedelic cookies in hearts and stars and butterflies; petit fours that look like works of playful surreal art. I immediately abandoned notions of traditional cakes and cupcakes, and asked one of the gorgeous mamas behind the counter to fill up a cake box with a wondrous assortment of the glittered and jewelled works of art. There were six in our group, plus the guy running the training, plus the director and few other assistants. A box of assorted goodies would be plenty. It was probably five times as expensive as a carrot cake from Woollies; these goodies would be much more fun to pass round a group of rowdy puppeteers.
So when everyone arrived, I excitedly pointed the Birthday Girl at her party pack, a pink box perched invitingly on one of the couches in the studio. She opened it, peered inside. “Oh my god,” she said. “That is so gorgeous! And so thoughtful. It’s so… pretty.” She looked around. “It’s much too pretty to share.” And she promptly closed the box, which she later took home, without sharing.
My surprise from that moment has still not worn off. It’s not that I particularly wanted or needed to taste anything from the box. But I was really looking forward to sharing the pretty things with the whole group. It wasn’t really her birthday present. It was everyone’s. But I gave it to her, and I guess she really wanted it for herself, so she said thank you and took it home. Pretty amazing, really.