As a kid, April was one of my favourite months.
In India, April is the start of the "long holidays" - two months of sunshine, beach time, no books and no homework, marking the end of the school year and the start of commitment-free living.
Summer was also fruit season - the best time of year to stuff our faces with juicy tropical fruit like mangoes and jackfruits - no year-round imported supplies of weak-tasting fruit for us, something I still miss today when wandering around the supermarket aisles laden with the same selection of fruit all year round. Back home you waited months for the fruit season and the anticipation made the eating all the sweeter!
Long summer evenings also meant walks in the hills where we'd watch people picking golden cashew apples off the trees. For someone who grew up around these strange fruits, it still amuses me to see the look on people's faces who are unfamiliar with the cashew apple to come across it for the first time.
"That's where cashew nuts come from?" It's a question I've heard so many times from friends hailing from more temperate climates.
Yes, this is where cashew nuts come from. In Goa everyone is as nuts about the nuts as the rest of the world but we are also particularly fond of the fruit for one important reason - cashew feni.
Anyone who has visited Goa won't be able to go far without being urged to try some cashew feni. The act is usually likened to a dare. "Go on try it and tell us what you think" is the usual opener - presented almost with an expectation that the person won't like it, which I have never quite understood.
Feni is, to be fair, a unique tasting liquor. I'd liken it most to Mediterranean arak or Turkish raki for its bite, minus the aniseed-y flavour. But it's reputation as local firewater/ moonshine is ill-deserved. It's a uniquely Goan drink that is consumed as a shot to whet the appetite, most commonly with lime juice and soda water as a long drink, or at night with sugar that's set alight to burn off a cold (the latter is my favourite cold-curing recipe.)
But I am waffling. Our Goan feni has got an unfair reputation over the years and so I was incredibly pleased to see that this reputation is being corrected recently by a friend who seems to have got it into his head that more people need to discover this drink for what it really is - a true alcoholic treasure of Goa.
I say, it's about time someone gave feni a make-over :)
As someone who has ashamedly never seen the feni distillation process in action (and has missed yet another season to watch it being made this year) I asked Hansel Vaz, my former classmate and now one of the owners of Cazulo Premium Feni, makers of organically-sourced feni from small local distillers in Goa, to give me a photographic tour on feni-making, and he very kindly obliged.
So here's the very first Platetrotter guest post, from Hansel, taking us on a fantastic tour of the feni trail in Goa.
An Illustrative Guide to Goan Feni by Hansel Vaz
We were lucky - like the chilly, tomato, potato and a few more exotics, the cashew too was not native to Goa. This ‘alien’ was indigenous to North Eastern Brazil, and against all odds, hopped across continents and sailed across oceans to finally land on the Western shores of this erstwhile Portuguese colony in India, to a land then still known by its colonial name - Estado da India. The cashew took to our red soil and tropical climate so beautifully, that today we call it our own.
Who knows? It probably was the taste for imported curiosities that led the cashew fruit (aka the cashew apple) to a more glorious future! By 1740, spies in the Portuguese empire were already secretly documenting that Goans enjoyed an alcohol distilled from this exotic fruit, unlike anywhere else in the world. Our ancestors were already inventors.
If you want to make good Cashew Feni, you have to first begin with picking the right cashews. The local variety - the ‘balli’ coloured in gentle yellows, oranges and vibrant reds (left) is best suited, as opposed to the emaciated monochrome ‘scientific hybrids’ that are also cultivated (right).
Early afternoon is when ‘cazkars’ – cashew pickers - organise themselves to methodically comb the orchards for naturally fallen cashew apples. Tree-ripened naturally-fallen fruit are full of sugars and low in the astringent sap, so make the best feni. Dressed like ninjas - covered head to toe - to avoid insect bites and scratches, they arm themselves with a ‘canto’, to spear fallen fruit into a basket.
Cashew apples are dropped into the ‘colmbi’, stone basins that have been carved into solid rock, where another set of workers de-seed the nuts from the cashew apples, to prepare for the stomp.
It may look fun, but it is serious work - stomping the fruit to gently express its juices. Men work in pairs and trample the cashew fruit to a pulp.
The pulp is then made into a mound and trussed together with a vine. Heavy rocks are placed on top to press the remaining juice out of the pulp overnight.
The juice is strained and allowed to naturally ferment in earthen pots. No nutrients, catalysts or artificial yeasts are added, and nature takes over from where man left off - converting natural sugars into alcohol.
After fermentation, when the wash stops bubbling, it is ready for distillation. Traditionally feni was distilled in purposefully-crafted earthen pots, now replaced by more practical copper pots.
Traditionally the alcohol vapours were condensed in an earthen pot called a “launi” by constantly pouring water over it with a coconut shell ladle. Now a copper coil immersed in a water tank does the same. The vapours cool in the copper coils and are allowed to collect in the “launi”. The vapour phase of the alcohol is most crucial - while the copper coil removes unwanted sulphates, the earthen pot imparts beautiful earthy notes to the spirit.
Then it's time for Urrack, second Cazulo and finally Feni.
Urrack (14-16% alc v/v) - the first distillate - is a lovely cooling drink, and is velvety smooth, so lovely that the drinker often mistakenly over consumes. What follows is described as a velvet glove.
Third distillate feni is too strong to drink, and so it has been discontinued, and in fact the second distillate Cazulo is now sold and accepted as Feni.
What is interesting about the distillation process, is that each distillate is re-distilled with fermented juice in carefully guarded proportions, to give you not just a higher strength alcohol but a more flavourful next distillate. What is unique in Feni, is that unlike other alcohols, Feni is directly distilled into 42.8% alcohol. Most alcohols would distill to 80-90% and are then cut with mineral water to a strength of around 42-45%.
Fine feni is stored in glass, and not oak, as wood has nothing more to provide to an already robust and flavourful spirit. Carboys and Demijohns round off and chip any rough edges as the Feni is allowed to recuperate from the tumultuous distillation process for at least a year.
And finally, the Feni is tasted, graded and bottled to be enjoyed with some fine company and conversation. As we say back home, "Saude!"
MEET THE GUEST PLATETROTTER - HANSEL VAZ
An extremely engaging chronicler of his many adventures, with a way with words that instantly manages to transport you to foreign shores, Hansel is a geologist who splits his time between Goa and Papua New Guinea, where he has eaten pigs in pits and is probably the only Indian to have discovered snow in the Pacific Islands.
You can read more about Hansel's travels on his blog Fishbonehans and find out more about feni on cazulofeni.com - including some great feni cocktails.
Named Best Blog for Food & Travel
Top 10 UAE Food Blogs in UAE