Think of Goa and images of a tropical paradise flash into your mind. Beaches, quaint houses, historic churches and a unique cuisine, which is an amalgam of Indian flavours and Portuguese recipes all blended together over 450 years.
The Portuguese settled in Goa in the early 16th century CE and brought with them many fruits and vegetables from the foreign lands that their traders had links with. You’d be surprised to know that many of the staples that we take for granted today like potatoes, tomatoes, chilies, pineapples and the cashew nut came to India with the Portuguese.
Cashew which is believed to be native to Brazil, a Portuguese colony at the time, was first planted by them. In fact, the Portuguese first planted cashew trees to stop the erosion of topsoil caused by the strong Goan monsoons. This was a great introduction because pretty soon it became clear that the Indian soil was ideal for cashew plantation; in fact it was far better suited than Brazil too. India is still one of the world’s largest cashew producers today.
Potatoes, tomatoes, chilies, pineapples and the cashew nut came to India with the Portuguese
A proliferation of cashew nuts meant that ingenious locals soon used it to create a local tipple or fermented brew- the Feni. Though it is unclear who started making it first, records of Portuguese settlers suggest that by 1740 CE this local alcohol was being distilled from cashews. Feni is only made from cashew apples that have ripened and fallen off the tree. This is probably how the drink was first invented, by using the cashew apples that the Portuguese did not want. This also led to constant skirmishes with the Portuguese authorities as the ‘local’ Feni industry cut into their revenues and taxes from regular alcohol.
Interestingly the word ‘feni’ itself has deeply Indian roots. It is believed to have been derived from the Sanskrit word phena which means froth, thanks to the bubbles that form a light froth when Feni is shaken in a bottle or poured into a glass.
The Making of Feni
Feni is only made from cashew apples that have ripened and fallen off the tree
The ‘cashew apple picker’ is one of the most important people involved in the long and complicated process of creating Feni. Once the apples are picked, the pickers de-seed them after which they are transferred to the stomping area called a colmbi. This is usually a rock cut into a basin shape. The cashew apples are stomped to release the juice. Stomping is now gradually been replaced by the use of a press called a pingre (cage). The pulp of the fruit is extracted after hours of powerful stomping or pressing. The extract is gathered into a mound, which is left overnight under a heavy stone. This squeezes the juice out of the pulp which is called neero, this fresh juice makes for a refreshing drink, but is non-alcoholic.
The neero then goes into a kodem, a large earthen pot that is used for fermenting. When the bubbling in the pot stops, which is usually after three days, the neero is ready for distillation. Urrack, the first distillate, has 12-16% alcohol content. The second distillate is the cazulo. By the time the juice is aged enough to be called Feni, the alcohol content is between 42-46%.
The result is a strong, pungent alcoholic beverage that is completely unique!
Proof of this uniqueness of Feni is the fact that it is the first Indian alcoholic beverage to get the coveted Global Geographical Indication (GI) registration, a sign that authentic Feni can only be sourced from Goa. This puts the Feni in the illustrious company of Scotch, Champagne, Cognac and closer home, Darjeeling Tea. It acquired this coveted status after a long struggle, in 2009.
In a paper about Goa’s efforts to win GI status for Feni, Dwijen Rangnekar, who teaches law at Warwick University in the UK, quotes the journals of the 16th-century Italian traveler Ludovico de Varthema, who writes that Feni ‘will affect a man’s head merely by smelling it, to say nothing of drinking it’.
The GI tag puts Feni in the league of Scotch, Champagne, Cognac
Unfortunately, despite the GI tag, Feni has not been branded or marketed heavily because until recently, it was classified as a ‘country liquor’ making it difficult for the producers to charge a premium for it. But procuring the tag of being a ‘Heritage Brew’ in 2016, could change the fortunes of the still very popular Feni.
Who knows, one day Feni could be Goa’s greatest export - and do what the Tequila has done for Mexico and Scotch for Scotland: Create a billion dollar industry! '
Cover Image: Fenidrink.com