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.