Vile Feni? Give Up That Stinking Thought and Shout Viva to the Cashew Liquor When You’re in Goa
FENI is not a drink you’d serve in polite company. Even back in the 16th century, when people were more accustomed to quaffing rough drinks, the Italian traveller, Ludovico de Varthema, wrote that feni “will affect a man’s head merely by smelling it, to say nothing of drinking it”. Having spent three days drinking it neat, savouring cocktails conjured up with it and pairing it with fine food, I beg to differ. I am convinced it’s time for Goa’s ‘national drink’ to claim its rightful place in the sun.
The cashew liquor is the only indigenous drink in the country to get the coveted Geographical Indicator (or G.I.) status – it earned the privilege on March 23, 2009, thanks to Valentino Vaz, the first feni distiller in Goa to bottle the drink that is still mainly sold in pouches – but it did not get the kind of glamorous makeover and marketing push it so desperately needed till a five-star hotel discovered it.
The Park Hyatt Goa’s General Manager, Thomas Abraham (whom many of us knew well during his stints with the Hyatt Regency and Taj Palace in New Delhi), hit upon the idea of bringing his hotel closer to the local community by organising an annual Cashew Trail every April, at the peak of the harvest season, which stretches from March to May. It’s been four years and the event has been gaining newer fans with each Cashew Trail.
The Portuguese brought cashew to India in the early 1500s and the Goans have been distilling feni since then. On a visit to the cashew farm of one of the state’s leading distillers, named Madame Rosa after Valentino Vaz’s mother, with the unrelenting sun and 90 per cent humidity sending sweat streaming down my face as if I were under a shower, I learnt from Cedric Vaz, Valentino’s son, that each cashew tree yields 25-30 kilos of fruit (the beguilingly red cashew apple) that goes on to produce the sweet and refreshing juice called niro.
Since the time the fruit arrived in Goa, in an unchanging ritual played out during the harvest months, it has been handpicked after it drops on the ground by women armed with a slim wooden staff fitted with two sharp nails at the base. Paid by the kilo, their quest begins early in the morning when the sun is still not as savage, and before the ants get to the fruit scattered on the uneven, rocky terrain that tests every bit of the strength of your legs.
After the nuts are removed (about five kilos per tree) and sent for processing, the fruit are stomped upon (in the manner in which grapes were treated before the wine industry got mechanised) and the juice extracted. If I had my way, I would have been happy to drink a glass of chilled niro (cashew apple juice) and call it a day, but Goa’s 3,500-odd distillers transfer it to wood-fired copper stills sealed by the mud removed from the anthills that rise like defiant castles all over the farm.
The product of the first distillation, urrack, may have less alcohol (18-20 per cent) but it’s rough on the palate. Our encyclopaedic guide and green activist, Charlie D’Silva, taught me a way to enjoy the urrack. Mix it with a liberal splash of Limca, add a dash of rock salt and tear some allspice leaves into the drink. Believe me! You’ll fall in love with it. Pair it with the unforgettable home-cooked Goan Saraswat lunch served at the Savoi plantation, 15km from Ponda, and you’ll love it even more. The sense of peace one experiences at Savoi after a meal washed down by an urrack cocktail makes one understand the poetic observation of Mac Vaz, Cedric’s elder brother and President of the Goan Cashew Feni Distillers and Bottlers Association. “Feni and harmony,” he said, “are Goa’s gifts to India. Sit back and make them a part of your life.”
Feni is the second distillate. When I drank it first at Casa Sarita, the Park Hyatt’s Goan restaurant led by the talented (and self-effacing – I couldn’t get him to give me an interview!) Chef Edridge Vaz, I couldn’t help but compare the drink with grappa – a comparison confirmed by Steve Gutkin, the award-winning American journalist (formerly of The Associated Press and a veteran of hotspots such as Afghanistan and Israel), who now runs the local newspaper, Goan Streets, with his charming wife, Marisha Ann Dutt. It has a similar depth of taste and range of flavours that distinguish the typically Italian alcoholic beverage made from grape seeds.
With Marisha giving me company on the dinner table, we paired the Fresh Harvest Urrack with Chef Edridge’s Assiette of Seafood Peri Peri (the rough nose and pleasant palate of the drink presented a pleasant contrast, nor did it and clash with the gentle pungency of the peri peri sauce). The Cashew Feni 2014 – younger and therefore more demanding on the palate – danced along with the Cauliflower Tondak sexed up with first-press coconut milk and salted cumin biscotti (the dish simply uplifted the Goan breakfast staple, tondak, a curry made with legumes and served with pav).
The oak cask-aged Cashew Feni 2012, though, was the master of the evening – it sat regally on the palate as we savoured Chef Edridge’s Pulled Lamb Xacuti with sliced and spiced potatoes and husk wheat crouton. The dish not only complemented the drink, but also got our attention. A perfect pairing! The evening ended with a cold cheese cake made with the coconut filling of the Goan alle belle pancakes and cashew jam. It’s just what you’d want to have with the Cashew Feni 2010, aged in an oak cask used to mature port. How I wished Varthema, the Italian traveller, were in our midst – he would have revised his opinion on feni.
My favourite feni cocktail is the one a waiter mixed for me – at the Sunday brunch that concluded the Cashew Trail – with the one-year-old Lembranca (it’s Portuguese for “memories”), the only feni to carry a Mario Miranda cartoon on the bottle, a splash of apple juice and lots of ice. Cedric Vaz said Miranda drew the cartoon in 1972, at a time when his father, Valentino, sold feni in porcelain bottles. Much has changed since then, but the drink continues to be weighed down by the country liquor tag. It’s time for us to make feni the mascot for Make in India.
This article is a longer and completely re-written version of the lead story that appeared in my column, Fortune Cookie, in Mail Today on Thursday, April 23, 2015.