Group President, Group Managing Director & Editor In Chief: Dr.Shelly Ahmed

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Spotlight: How Feni Drink Can Be A Make In India Mascot?

Feni a cocktail drink originally concepted in Goa and got the global recognition. It is the only indigenous drink in the country to get the coveted Geographical Indicator status.

Feni is not a drink you would serve in polite company, but having spent three days drinking it neat, savouring cocktails conjured up with it and pairing it with fine food, I am convinced it’s time for Goa’s "national drink" to claim its rightful place in the sun. 

It is the only indigenous drink in the country to get the coveted Geographical Indicator (or GI) status — it earned the privilege on March 23, 2009, thanks to Madame Rosa’s son, Valentino Vaz — but it did not get the kind of glamorous makeover and marketing push it so desperately needed till the Park Hyatt Goa’s general manager, Thomas Abraham, hit upon the idea of bringing his hotel closer to the 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 the grandmother of the company’s third-generation owners, 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, Madame Rosa’s grandson, 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 ounce 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 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 shelter the cashew apple stealers thriving on 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. Feni is the second distillate and when I drank it first at Casa Sarita, the Park Hyatt’s Goan restaurant headed 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. It has a similar depth of taste and the range of flavours that distinguishes the typically Italian alcoholic beverage made from grape seeds. 

My favourite feni cocktail is the one a waiter mixed for me 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 Vaz, 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 to make feni the mascot for Make in India.
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