In Focus

Feni is ‘fond memory’ for few, ‘elixir’ for all

Feni, whose production ran into a roadblock following the lockdown in 2020, will make a resurgence. After all, it is synonymous with all things Goan, says Manu Shrivastava

Goa’s rain-drenched villages celebrated the Feast of Sao Joao recently, albeit without the ceremonial fanfare. The Feni didn’t flow as wildly as usual. The time around, the feast had arrived in the middle of a pandemic and lockdown. This, however, does not affect Feni’s prospects in the future. It has survived centuries despite formidable competition from the world’s best brands and all because it holds a special place in every Goan’s heart.

Feni, for Goans, isn’t just an alcoholic beverage. It's an integral part of the lives of most Goans whose association with Feni begins in early childhood, at home itself! Feni is not just ‘produced’ in Goan households but also stored and consumed in homes for its medicinal value as well. In the production of Feni, unlike other commercial liquors, all members of a family, including its children, are involved. Just about every Goan has memories of an association with Feni since childhood.

IN-HOUSE FACTORY: A family engaged in Feni production at Arambol in North Goa
‘I enjoy Feni particularly during the rains’

President of Cashew Feni Distillers and Bottlers Association and second-generation Cazcar heritage distillery owner, Gurudatta Bhakta says, “It was my father who started Feni production business in 1969 for general consumption.” Recalling “those days” he narrates how Feni was an intrinsic part of his childhood.

Damodar Bhakta (right) being awarded
by thespian actor Dev Anand
“Earlier, the cashew apples would be transported in bullock carts and each cart would carry 600-800 kg of apples, transported from the 5-10 km radius allotted to each production unit.” And, the apples could come from present-day Maharashtra or present-day Karnataka. “Boundaries are political…yet the regions bordering Goa have the same soil type and weather conditions, so the cashew apples are not different.”

Mr Bhakta reminisces visiting the farm as a school-boy with father, Damodar Bhakta, and “crushing apples” that was “tiring but fun”. “Those days, Feni was sold in kolso (15 lit capacity) and stored in copper pots and glass jars called garrafões. The garrafões were used to transport wine from Portugal and later for storage of Feni.” The family-owned business is now run by Mr Bhakta and wife Rupa while the marketing is handled by one of his three children, Vipalava.

FAMILY AFFAIR: Cazcar distillery owner Gurudatta Bhakta (centre) with his family
Recalling his earliest memory of Feni, Mr Bhakta says, “I saw Feni being produced for the first time as a 12-year-old boy. Now, I enjoy having Feni particularly during the rains.”

The medicinal benefits of Feni are far too many to ignore. It has been used in Goan households, since forever, to keep cold and flu at bay, especially during the crazy Goan monsoon, to alleviate tooth and stomach ache, etc.

Long ago, Goa was home to ‘taverns’ that served only Feni, both cashew and coconut and it would the evening gossip joint. Men would sit on balcaos in the evening and chat for hours over Feni. Even then, women also consumed Feni, at home, before lunch or after dinner “but it was medicinal drinking, not social as it helps in relaxing the nervous system, enhancing sleep.”

‘I would pluck cashew apples for the Feni’

“As a young girl I would help my grandmother pluck cashew apples on our plantation,” recalls renowned actress Meenacshi Martins. She speaks reams of how come March, the harvest season in Goa, tempos carrying cashew apples, buses transporting jackfruit and mangoes are a common sight.

She speaks fondly of the time when it was a family tradition to pluck the fruit harvest that included cashew apples, kokum fruit, mangoes, jackfruit, and others. “I would hold a small basket, my grandmother, a bigger one and we’d visit the family farmlands every day to collect cashew apples.”
Like is the case with most Goans, all members of Meenacshi’s family were involved in the production of Feni. “The children, in particular, loved crushing apples in the colmbil i.e. the stone tub and their reward being a glassful of niro – the sweet-tasting last of the broth that oozes out slowly after the crushing.”

CHILDHOOD MEMORY: Renowned actor Meenacshi Martins has fond memories of Feni
“My father stopped drinking Feni when I was twelve years old yet we continued to produce Feni. At any time, we had 10-15 garrafões to store Feni and keep at home. Today, Meenacshi keeps Feni at home mainly for medicinal purpose as it helps in treating stomach ache, cough and cold, etc. “The older the Feni, the better medicinal value it has.”

She speaks of wonderful times when she would “visit the farm with her father, a freedom fighter in Goa’s liberation movement, to plant saplings and then, during summer, go to water the saplings after work, regularly.” She recalls how, “even at a young age, I knew the processes and would supervise the labourers working the land. It was dear to my heart.” Like most Goans, “life as a farmer would run parallel to life as a professional,” says Meenacshi.

‘I prefer Urrack to Feni’

Creative Head for Wendell Rodricks label, Schulen Fernandes was "introduced to Urrack and Feni at an ancestral home much earlier, during family summer holidays. Litres of these local spirits were stocked in beautiful garrafãos." However, it's only in the last few years after moving to Goa from Mumbai, that she "truly started enjoying Urrack as a 'summer' drink."

URRACK-READY: Schulen Fernandes prefers Urrack over Feni
She adds gleefully, "I love to have Urrack with a little khus and a dash of lemon or  Urrack with fresh kokum juice and a split green chilli. Why, Urrack infused with spices like a 'Hot Toddy' is lovely. I'm not a big fan of Feni, I find its smell and taste too sharp for my liking. It's Urrack that I love and this year, just before lockdown, I got my stash of a few litres from Siolim hill."

She also got a chance to "sip on the most refreshing niro, offered by a cheerful villager who also showed me the whole handcrafted distillation process," adding, "it was an additional bonus."

Feni has traditionally been a cottage industry where households produce it for their own consumption. Even today, Feni sold commercially is produced by family-owned enterprises. It’s this close-knit association that Feni has with families that will ensure it never goes extinct. Surely not with the Goans, at least.

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