The Curious Case of Cashew Feni Drink in Goa

You can spell it as ‘Feni’, ‘Fenny’ or ‘fenim’, but never ever as ‘fire-water’! Often (falsely) portrayed as rocket fuel, paint thinner or even worm medicine, Cashew Feni in fact is one of the most exotic of spirits in the world.cazulo-cashew-feni-goa-original-feni-drink

A Cashew Feni is both simple and complex, literally speaking. We haven’t really taken the effort to explain what this two-word named drink to the rest of the world, because everyone who drank it, just ‘knew’ it. So how have we described a Cashew Feni to a person who has never tasted or seen a Cashew?

For starters, most people are not familiar with a Cashew, immediately conjuring images of the tasty nut when the word cashew is mentioned. According to botanists, the Cashew is not a true fruit, scientifically it is termed a ‘swollen pedicel’-stem to you and me. Not a fruit then what is it? This green when raw ‘swollen pedicel’ turns into in a variety of colours; rouge, orange and yellow, when ripe and is shaped like a pear, so for lack of a better adjective the poor false fruit was differentiated from the Cashew nut, by being termed a ‘Cashew apple’. You could just as well, drop the ‘apple’ from name and it would still mean the same thing, and all too often it is just known by its shortened name ‘Cashew’. Beats me why no one thought of calling it a Cashew fruit! If this was not complicated enough, you can also spell it as Cashew and Caju. They both mean the same thing, yet can be pronounced as ‘Cash-ew’, ‘Ca-jew’ or ‘ca-zoo’!

This tree is native to South Eastern Brazil, and was carried to India by probably the French, Portuguese, English, Dutch or Arabs- we don’t know, as by the 17th century, when we see mentions of cashew, Goa was trading with all of them. All we know is that this plant hopped its way across oceans and continents from South America via Africa to the coast of Goa. What made people only in Goa (and not anywhere else) distill this alien fruit into an alcohol- Feni, is a mystery, but whoever thought of it is a genius!

Very little is known about Cashew Feni outside its birthplace; Goa. My concern is about the knowledge base Feni drinkers, who have lived and grown up on the home turf of this spirit. Usual descriptions of a Feni are shockingly vague; ‘Goan tequila’, ‘Indian vodka’ or ‘moonshine’ are comparisons coined when words fail to explain. In reality comparing a Feni to Tequila, is what Chalk is to Cheese! Describing the taste is even more difficult proposition if you have never seen or tasted a cashew; often peppered with a caution of ‘acquired taste’. It’s no surprise, puzzled expressions are the first reaction to a Cashew Feni, and it is this confusion that does more damage even before the drink is tasted, as preconceived notions of a drink can swing the fortunes either way for a first time taster.

Most often than not, regular feni drinkers can give informed opinions about the provenance of an Argentinian grape variety or the tasting notes of a Scotch from Islay, but going further than the ascribed dominant fact that a good feni ‘tastes and smells like a good Cashew Feni’, is where most aficionados stutter. Most wine and spirit products are meticulously defined and have volumes of literature documenting such, that’s not the case with Feni. The little that has been written are usually malicious, ill-informed and subscribe to stereotypes. If that was not all, Feni has long suffered from the myopic view of its association with small time taverns, but it is being dealt a killer blow by under the strains of cheap mass-produced plastic bottles, the ones with the garish labels.

The making of a Cashew Feni is again unique among distilled spirits. First, handpicked tree-ripened and fallen cashews are stomped; to gently express the juices from the fleshy fruit, much the same way in winemaking. Like a Brandy, feni is distilled from cashew wine. In the first stripping run of the distillation a cashew wine is distilled into a light alcohol- Urrack. It is the next distillation, the artisanal distiller carefully controls the heat to allow the careful melange of water and alcohol to coax out the stronger second distillate (42-43%) spirit with less flavor and more character in it. The flavors come entirely from the Cashew and the terroir where it took root, while the character stands testament to the time-hounoured knowledge that has been refined down generations. Nothing is added that was not originally present- no flavourers, yeasts, colours, aromas. While most alcohols like whisky and Brandy etc distilled in excess of 90% pure alcohol, the base ingredient hardly matters as neutral alcohol lacks taste. On the other hand, a Cashew Feni, even right off the pot still, tastes and smells distinctly of the Cashew and earthy- peppery notes from which it is made.

While purists still drink it ‘neat’, a Cashew Feni is something you usually drink with something else. Of course that something can be ice, a splash of bitters, a twist of lime or an effervescent lemonade, tonic or soda. These however hardly diminish the taste of the Cashew Feni, but like the pepper sauce does to a beefy steak, in fact it just makes it better! A spirit like Gin has so overwhelmingly accepted ‘mixers’ as an essential companion and not a sidekick, why can’t we do the same with a cashew Feni? It’s time we remove the blinkers and let a Cashew Feni truly reveal for itself.

Aging Feni Alcohol Drink – Message in the Glass Bottle

“Why should whisky or a brandy beaged in an oak cask and not a Feni?”

Goan’s have been consuming Feni for a few centuries now, yet the majority of the Feni sold and consumed today is un-aged.Very rarely would someone be accessible to aged Feni, because its unlikely thatsomeone would be able to store Feni without consuming it. For the most part,aged Feni is available usually at a personal capacity- the elixir that willonly be served to his closest and most cherished friends and family. What mightbe intriguing is that, unlike aged Whisky and Brandy that take on a beautifulamber hue, even the oldest Feni’s are clear as spring water! (Though CashewFeni is known to take on a pale golden hue). That’s because all Feni is aged inlarge glass carboys called garrafaons or steel vessels instead of wooden casks.While Bottlers prefer to use steel vessels because of their high volume storageand output of production, some barmen still store their Feni in glass carboyscalled garrafaons. The logistics and monetary feasibility of using Oak Casks toage Feni make it prohibitively expensive for someone to experiment. But I ask,why not glass stick to the time tested glass then? A lack of oak would certainlyallow the robust character of Feni to appear to its fullest, wouldn’t it?

Following conventional alcohol wisdom, why would someone store Feni in garrafaon’s if the common knowledge was that Feni does not age in glass? It is widely understood that once an alcoholis in a bottle, the character (under proper storage conditions) will neverchange. This is because the high alcohol concentration forbids anything tohappen inside the liquid. Which would mean that if your father bottled a Feni in 1970, it would taste the same if opened today, 43 years later? But anyonewho has tasted aged Feni will beg to differ. Can this be explained only bypsychology? Or is it just because that quality of Feni is not made any more today?

It little wonder that one hearsstories of glass bottles of Feni being found at the bottom of water wells ordeep under the soil of the court yard. The high alcohol content may work against it, but if you look at it witha bit of common sense, it is clear that something just must happen in thebottle after the cork has been sealed. It would be naïve to believe that all of the hundreds of chemical substances present in Feni that give it its unique bouquet and taste, would become totally inert right after bottling. There has to be a chemical interaction that we do not full understand yet, that just makes and aged Feni smoother and round of its sharp edges. To me it’s plain andsimple; our ancestors recognized the fact that the Feni does indeed change overtime in glass, and we won’t admit it. That’s the message in the bottle!

Saude!

Glass carboys-wickered with cane.

Glass carboys-wickered with cane.

Aging in garrafao's

Aging in garrafao’s

Different sized garrafao's

Different sized garrafao’s

Distilling Feni Liquor – Chemistry in the Copper Pot

The process of crafting a Feni is in many ways very similar to that of making a wine. You hand pick tree ripened cashews, stomp the juicy apples andallow the juice to ferment into a crude cashew wine. But that’s probably wherethe similarity ends. In the following step- distillation, the low-strength wine is converted into a high strength alcoholic spirit, that we could call an Urrack, Cazulo or a Feni, depending on which stage you are at.

Feni distillation is often simplified as a process of separating the alcohol from the rest of the wine- rather alcohol evaporating faster than water in the Wash. But in fact, when the wash is brought to a boil, a lot of complexinteractions take place between the many components inside the bhann- thecopper pot, and alcohol evaporation is only one of them.

If you have ever tasted fermented cashew wash; it has a rather mustytang to it, notes which are not entirely pleasant to taste. However, comparedto the wash, Feni has distinctive flavours and taste that has so much appeal –practically impossible to detect in the wash. So how does this transformationcome about?

The metabolism of the naturally present wild yeast is an enormouslycomplex process- converting natural sugars into a mixture of different alcoholsand organic acids. With the addition of heat during distillation, thesemixtures of different alcohols and organic acids recombine to form chemicalcompounds called esters. The aromasin a Feni are tied to esters. Different kinds of alcohol and different acids give differentrise to different esters- consequently widening the flavour profile of thedrink. It but natural that a little water also gets vaporized when the heat is applied, and it is on these water vapours that esters piggy back on to betransported  and then condensed into the launi- or distillate collection pot. By redistilling the first distillate,Urrack with fresh juice, we only are trying to concentrate more esters-  sending more flavour into our Feni. After all isn’t taste tied very closely to smell?

Those unpleasant musty aromas of the wash are caused by sulphur which isnaturally present in any organic material. Excess of sulphur in the juice needsremoval in the distillation, as it is a one way ticket to hang over city. Andthis is essentially the reason why pot stills are made from copper: The sulphurreacts with the copper walls of the pot still to form an insoluble coppersulphate that is green in colour. With the ester formation and sulphur removed,the distillate is now the robust Feni that we all enjoy during our summer evenings.

Because of the highly complex chemistry of such arich mixture of substances if difficult to understand with absolute certaintywhat actually is going on inside a copper pot still during distillation. Maybewe will never know, but we can truly appreciate the distinctness of a fine Fenibouquet.

Collecting Feni in a launi

Collecting Feni in a launi

Fermenting Cashew Apples – Forgotten in a Pot

From March to May, the lush hills are speckled yellow and red- cashew apples decorate branches like the bobbles on a Christmas trees. There is also that unmistakable scent of cashews that fills the air, the smell of fermenting cashews that heralds the best time of summer.

As the heat of the summer afternoon ebbs, after the nuts are separated from the cashew apples, the most fun part of the evening commences- stomping cashews! Trampling underfoot baskets of squishy cashews may sound like fun, but it requires skill,balance and endurance to collect the buckets of sweet cashew juice. The juice from the stomped cashews is diluted with water; called a Wash.

Traditionally huge earthen pots- Kodem, buried in the ground, are employed as a vessel to ferment the wash. The wash can hardly be viewed just as fruit juice diluted in water; at this point it is a complex concoction of sugars, starches, fats, alcohols, acids and proteins. By encouraging the use of only naturally occurring tropical yeasts strains, the wash begins to ferment; constantly bubbling and spluttering in the 3-4 days that nature takes over. Fermentation is not simply a conversion of glucose into ethanol, with carbon dioxide as an exhaust gas. The metabolism of the wild yeast is enormously complex, converting natural sugars into a live broth of different alcohols and organic acids-crucial for the aromatic evolution, when distillation of the ferment takes place. Left alone for a few days, nature takes over inside the Kodem from where man left.

By the end, when the sugars are all consumed, the Wash is now a Cashew wine- with a thick layer of scum floating on the surface. The bubbling stops as the sugars have by now, been all consumed by the insatiable wild yeast. The cashew wine not only looks putrid, but if you have,like me, sacrificed life for science- the wine is musty-tangy, and not entirely pleasant. Those unpleasant musty aromas of the wash are caused by sulphur which is naturally present in any organic material. Excess of sulphur in the juice needs removal in the distillation, as it is a one way ticket to hang over city.

In the bustle to process the baskets of cashew apples every evening, the highly complex chemistry and the reactions taking place, is little understood and is a forgotten stage in the Feni crafting process. Shrouded in the sheath that covers the mouth of the kodem we can only guess what actually really happens. Fermenatation magic

Fermentation magic

Fermentation Kodems

Fermentation Kodems

Fermented cashew wine

Fermented cashew wine

Kodem- traditional earthenware specifically for fermenting wash

Kodem- traditional earthenware specifically for fermenting wash

Pouring the wash into the kodem

Stomping Cashews for Production in Goa – Getting Juiced Up!

Sorting and stomping of cashews

Sorting and stomping of cashews

It is a “sole bare-ing”experience, which you get only in Goa — to stomp cashews, that is. During the harvest, Cashew Feni distilleries stretching from Pernem to Polem and Valpoi to Velsao still make Feni the time honored way – daily squishing tonnes of cashew apples between their toes.

Goa being the only place in the world where Cashew Feni is produced,there is always an opportunity to lend a hand, or rather, a foot, a told-fashioned cashews stomping at harvest season — generally late March through to early May.

Cashew Feni purists, believe that Feni distilled from juice that has been stomped, is by far the best. Some believe that the days when juice extraction was done by the foot are numbered. Cashew stomping is a relatively gentle way of managing the process of crush, now often replaced with mechanical pulpers and the hydraulic press. The trick is not to shred the fruit the cashews, rather to gently squeeze it open so the juices are expressed without releasing the acidic sap that is not desirable. But even though they may have the latest in gleaming cashew press technology- Pinjre, parked at their Colmbi-stomping pit, a number of distilleries still practice the retro charm of stomping cashews in this fast changing Goa.

Imagining dainty maidens doing the stomping? Allow me to break that bubble. It’s usually hairy muscular male legs that are employed for the stomp.It’s certainly not only a skill, but it takes a bit of endurance and balance toget into Colmbi and start stomping around.

If you think Stomping probably would lend your fine Feni with notes of “smelly feet”, its probably because your own feet smell. Thankfully the alcohol produced during fermentation kills all the germs, and if you are still not convinced then the distillation will most certainly do the trick.

Stepping on a few basket loads of bursting-ly ripe cashews feels weirdly exciting, especially since it is squishy. Actually loads of fun, until the next load of cashews is dumped!

The tradition of stomping has lived on ever since the first Feni was distilled centuries ago. This season if you haven’t as yet, kick off those shoes and step into the Colmbi- let the tradition live on!

De seeding cashews- separating the nut from the apple