The Nordic candy fairy

Saturday, 23 August 2014 - 4:53pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

Estonia’s Thea Tammeleht has an infectious energy. What she’s also spreading is the joy of eating artisanal marzipan made with some of the priciest, albeit finest ingredients. Here’s about the lady who’s made Mumbai her home

They always make for a good story, these transnational love stories. Indian boy meets Scandinavian girl, they fall in love, get married. What after that? Adorable looking babies, yes, AND some drool-worthy, artisanal marzipan too! Read on.

What is authentic marzipan?

Married to an Indian engineer, and currently living in Mumbai, the Estonian marzipan maker, as Thea Tammeleht is known to city gourmet connoisseurs, is a woman on a mission. She wants people to rediscover the marzipan that her city gave to the world in the 15th Century, made with the finest almonds and organic sugar.

She enjoys the skepticism people greet her creations with. “Indians are the only ones in the world who I know use cashew nuts. The cashew marzipan is very greasy, too sweet, and not nice,” she says without mincing words. She insists you try her treats in front of her. She knows they taste different. After she’s helped you decipher the layers of flavour and the after-taste, she lovingly unfolds an A3 size brochure (that’s given with every single order), taking you through ‘a once-upon-a-time in 1422 story’ when the marzipan first came into being.

It’s a story every tourist visiting Tallinn, Estonia’s largest city, is told, it’s that important to Estonians. Thea says that’s because everybody can make something, “but if you don't have the story, you don't have the history, you are selling something different. A 100 rupee watch shows time, and so does an expensive Mont Blanc. One comes with heritage, one comes from the market.”

The accidental marzipan maker

Thea may not be a professionally trained marzipan maker, but definitely a seasoned one. She has a Masters in Psychology actually, but her marzipan making skills predate everything else she knows. “I’m the sixth generation marzipan maker in my family. It goes back a very long time,” she tells us.

Nordic Kandie Magic though, the marzipan company that Thea now runs, didn’t come into being until last year. The Specialist of academic affairs at a university in her home country, quit her eight-year-old job one fine day. “Long distance marriage wasn't working for me. My husband was always travelling on assignments, and I wasn't happy in my job anymore. That's when I decided to move to Mumbai,” says Thea.

Her first year in Mumbai, Thea stayed home. She thought of taking up counselling, but figured that sacrificing her family time to establish herself wasn’t for her. “Then last holidays we were in Estonia making marzipan, when we (she and her husband) were thinking what I could do. Thomas was like your family has been making marzipan for centuries, why don’t you introduce your family recipe in the Indian market. I said, yes! Let's do it. So back in Europe we formed the company in three hours, and here in four months, and now we are doing that! That's my simple story,” she smiles.

Setting up shop

“We thought setting up the factory here will be cheaper and easier, but it was a very expensive lesson,” laughs Thea. Maintaining European standards for air and water purification, hygiene and aligning her workforce to those standards and her expectations, was an uphill task. “You know, working with people who've never followed the rules is quite hard (laughs).” From getting her workforce to understand why they need to wear different work clothes and gloves, to getting her office staff to be more responsible, Thea put herself to work with each of them. And she says she’s glad they are all growing with her.

Where to source the right ingredients from was another important question. After reading news reports on questionable gold and silver on mithais during Diwali last year, Thea decided to import her ingredients – mamra almonds from Iran and gold and silver from Italy. “If the same company supplies to the Buckingham Palace, they can't do any hanky-panky. It has increased the cost. But everything I use has a certified source of origin and quality; it satisfies me as a marzipan maker, and hopefully it'll satisfy my customers too,” says the marzipan maker.

Marzipan memories

While Thea still follows the age-old family recipe, she says, “We didn’t have these finest ingredients back home when I was born, in the 80s. We were under the Russian reign.

These were tough times. The stores were empty, you had food coupons. You needed to know someone to get something. We’d just have half a kilogram of almonds and sugar to make marzipan. After we shaped and hand-painted the marzipan, my mom would put it behind the glass (showcase) in the living room. So, it stood there for six months, and we’d just look at it, until it was Christmas, when we’d bring it out, and everyone would have a little piece,” shares Thea.

She wonders aloud then, how perhaps in India cashew replaced the almonds. “Maybe here too, they made do best with what was available. You have to be creative in these times,” she says.

Making do with resources at hand, has in fact become quite her forte. Their initial plan was to retail via their online store, but due to some glitches they had to make do with something else – Whatsapp! “It’s a funny story,” says Thea. “We launched on Valentine’s Day, and sold online, but we had to make some changes to the website, which seemed to take ages.

As Whatsapp is really popular here, we decided to try it. Now 90% of our orders come through the messenger. With most people sending them as gifts, they like to see how it’s going. It’s more like a one to one live interaction with our customers,” she grins.

Mama’s girl

“Every girl wants to mimic her mother, they want to wear mother’s clothes, her shoes... my mom has been such a big role model for me. As they say every kid chooses their parent, I say I have done a very good choice,” says Thea.

“My mom was a single mother, a father and a mother to me. She ran an Food and Beverages business, I grew up in the restaurant, I’d be working during the summer, while other kids played at the beach. I thought that was unfair then, but it’s made me so much tougher. She’s also kept our family together, and gave us the Sunday roast family. What we do now is Sundays when they get together, I join then on Skype,” beams Thea.

And quickly adds, “Did you know that Skype was invented in Estonia. We are also a little IT world,” she laughs, clearly nostalgic too.

Life in India

Thea is glad for Skype that helps the families in Estonia and India stay connected, it’s helped her take to India sooner. And she especially loves the weather. “I have been in the European cold for so long, it’s like my bones are like finally getting warm,” she jokes.

Setting up home and life here of course brought a lot of challenges, and still does. The many expat groups and forums online helped Thea with figuring out the simpler but important things like places to pick up quality cheese and meats. There’s a lot of things Thea would like to grumble about too – civic apathy, people’s sense of timing, traffic and driving etiquette, but she also notes, that “In the last two years, I have seen things changing for the better.”

She confesses though, that she’s constantly scared for her daughter. “She’s snow white, and people are taking her pictures all the time. I know showing affection here is normal, but it’s always nice to ask. If she says no you have to respect that, but we’ve had people insisting that their kid wants a picture with her.”

Thea is only glad that her daughter’s come up with her own way to deal with such instances. “She says if you want a picture, you pay me 100 rupees, and it's putting people back,” she says.

“At times, it is good to be white and other times it's hard,” that’s how Thea sums up her experience of living in India.

Ready for Retail

Thea is soon going to retail her creations from her upcoming store in Peddar Road in September. Her creations will also be available at the Khan Market in Delhi.

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