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  • Feni Vidi Vici: A distilling description

    Apr 24th, 2016

    Buildings give way to trees, cars disappear and the long black tarmac begins to ascend as you leave the bustle of the city behind in search of Goa's most famous spirit. As the number of cars get fewer and your cellphone coverage virtually disappears, and you begin to breathe clear air again till it finally hits you; the strong nostalgic aroma of cashew being crushed.

    Feni or Fenny, as it is sometimes called, is to Goa what Scotch is to Scotland or Tequila to Mexico. The most unique characteristic of feni is its distinct smell that can be detected from miles away and once you latch onto it, you follow it like a pigeon coming home to roost.

    No wonder then, that 16th-century Italian traveller Ludovico de Varthema has been quoted as saying that "feni will affect a man's head merely by smelling it, to say nothing of drinking it".

    The process of making cashew feni is quite tedious and this is where the traditional distiller, the bhatikar comes in. Unlike the modern distilleries for whiskey, wine and brandy, 95% of the feni produced is done by the traditional bhatikars.

    "My father started the business during the Portuguese rule, using clay pots. I joined him in 1993 and although I did not have much knowledge, I liked working with him and it became a habit. So I learnt the skill. First, we had around one or two bhatis (still) but now we have 10 bhattis," Tulsidas Gaonkar from Nanoda-Usap, Bicholim, says.

    Largely a cottage industry, feni has been traditionally prepared around cashew plantations. But merely possessing an orchard is not enough. One needs to participate in an auction for the fruit. "Just having a plantation does not give you the right to do feni distillation. The auction is done in around three rounds that start in November," Sandeep Sawant, a bhatikar from Sarvan, Bicholim, says.

    The cashew is crushed either manually or by a mechanized press, allowing the juice to flow into storage tanks for fermentation. "Earlier, we used to do foot stomping. For small quantities this is OK, but for bulk quantities, it is not feasible. Before machines came in, we used to use bullocks to grind the fruit, using a roller," Sandeep explains.

    Once the juice ferments, it is moved to huge earthen or copper pots, known as bhan. Due to the high risk of breakage and low margins, copper pots have replaced the traditional clay pots. Once the fermented potion is filled, the pot is sealed shut with a wooden cork and heated over a slow fire for four to six hours. Clay and string is used to keep the cork, called a mhorano, in place. "Clay from the ant hill is used because it is sticky and has no stones. If there are stones, then the clay cracks," 34-year-old Sandeep explains.

    Sandeep is a third generation bhatikar. The distillation business was started by his grandfather, Datta Sawant, and was continued by Sonu Sawant, who at 67, continues to man and supervise the feni distillation process.

    The traditional bhatikar would prepare feni or Urak by crushing the fruit on a hewn stone called a kolmi. The wood used to transfer the intoxicating vapours for distillation is made of the bodgi tree, which is found along the river bank.

    Distillation would take place uphill in the plantation, and the cultivators and distillers used to stay for three or four months on that site, collecting fruit and doing the distillation till May-end. "Urrack is always best fresh, but feni better older. If you keep feni for a longer time, it gets stronger and better," Sonu says.

    Today the bhatikars take pride in what they do, despite the low profitability and backbreaking work that comes with the role. This is largely due to the Geographical Indication (GI) status, which protects feni from being manufactured by other states. Obtaining GI status for feni was the culmination of seven years of work by members of the Goa Cashew Feni Distillers and Bottlers Association.

    "Earlier I would not tell people that I was a feni distiller. But around the time GI started coming, I started realizing that this is something unique and this is my tradition which I have to maintain," Sandeep says.

    Sandeep goes on to add that the temptation to quit the industry often played on his mind. "I have realized that this is our tradition. It is tedious and not easy, but it is unique to Goa, and must be preserved," he says now, with conviction.

    The season will come to a close in May and to mark the end, the family will celebrate with the workers and the neighbours. "Earlier, all of us, including the ladies of the house, would go to the beach. It was called avar uttoita, because after than we used to start dismantling everything," the younger Sawant says.