A feni tasting at Fazenda Cazulo, a feni cellar in South Goa, reveals that there is a lot more to the heritage and process of making feni than meets the eye.
Raise a toast to this intoxicating cocktail — a Dutch spy who wrote lengthy tipsy tales in his cursive hand; a few tall, gangly men with long arms who turned smooth clay into wafer-thin pots that lay buried in soil; a basket full of fallen cashew apples; ancient no-fuss fermentation tactic; a few zany rules of auction and taxation; and mischievous fish nibbling on your toes while you learn about feni/food pairing narrated by a man named Hansel Vaz who was to the feni born.
Hansel, a trained petroleum geologist, is a fabulous storyteller juggling the feni narrative effortlessly between etymology, history, distillation methods, 26 expressions of feni and quirky Portuguese laws. Before one can gather the facts and the quirks, he throws knotty questions at the visitors and drops hints about surprises up his chintz shirt sleeve. During the two-hour feni tasting tour at Fazenda Cazulo, the story is non-linear and intriguing. And a few centuries old.
First, the etymology: feni is derived from the Sanskrit word phena and Konkani fenn meaning froth. Perhaps the earliest mention of coconut feni (much older than cashew feni) is found in Itenerario, a 1584 journal of Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, a Dutch merchant, historian, spy, and trader who lived in Goa between 1583 and 1587. The description was written very clearly and Hansel says the traditional method of making feni is still prevalent. Nothing has changed. Not the clay pots. Not the process. Not the use of tubby men to stand on laterite stones to extract the cashew apple juice. Not the law that the cashew tree cannot be shaken for fruit, only fallen apples can be legally picked.
Standing amidst the ancestral statuesque coconut and cashew trees that can live up to 140 years, Hansel talks of the feni in his DNA — his grandfather Maxwell Pinto, his father Wilson and Dona Maria, the feni brand that they created. On a bed under a thatch roof, clay pots lie lazily buried in soil while a laterite vat waits for the cashew apples to ripen in March-April and produce the first distillate called Todap which is consumed as Urrack (12-16% ABV) and later turned into feni (42-46% ABV).
But during the tour you ain’t seen the best until you roll up your trousers or hitch the long skirt and hop down a few cragged steps to find a feast laid in a body of water. I could not roll the hem of my white corduroy jumpsuit, and just walked into the shallow pond. A lavish spread awaited. Chorizo pao, chutney sandwiches, cheese, crackers, guava, pear, dried fig & apricot, honey, apple, bee pollen, Snickers, and a spittoon (it is mandated by law).
Hansel sat at the head of the table teasing about the fish pedicure (not sure about the pedicure, but the fish do tickle) and, as is wont, challenging the taste buds and the sensory understanding of feni/food pairing. Does feni taste better with cheese or with chorizo? With green chilli or red apple? With sandwich or dry figs? A man serves Peru Meru, a guava feni cocktail, and an unheard of Pataleo cocktail with coconut feni, coconut milk, liquid jaggery (a deconstructed version of the traditional Goan festive sweet Pataleo)!
Feni is not merely Bacchus’ delight. Hansel dislikes queuing ‘medicine’ and feni in the same sentence for ethical reasons but he elaborates upon how feni has always been very apothecary — administered as a remedy or tonic. “Alem (ginger feni) was the best remedy for a cough; Jirém or Cominhas (cumin feni) is an antidote for tummy trouble while the Losün (garlic) expression of Feni is perfect for those with heart ailments. A local cult favourite and probably feni’s biggest secret, we launched the Cazulo Premium Dukshiri Feni that has notes of petrichor, salted caramel, liquorice and peanuts. It was a remedy designed to reduce the intensity of the Dukh (pain /ache) of bodyaches, muscle or joints,” Hansel said.
The fish are relentless — they keep nibbling mischievously and the ‘No Diving’ sign looks anomalous. We were sitting barely ankle-deep in water but Hansel had a surprise up his brick-red chintz shirt. Beyond the sign and the iron fence is the feni cellar — feni ageing in ancient Garrafãoes (glass bottles) curled up deep inside water. Quietly. Surreptitiously.
The Garrafãoes are invisible but if you roll down your trousers, hop up the laterite steps again and walk through a yellow door, you’ll find a few hundred of them in the Beco das Garrafãoes (an alley of bottles). On tidy shelves sit over a thousand green, blue, amber garrafãoes: tubby, tall, round, antique, colossal, lanky, plump. Most were made in Europe and came filled with wine and olive oil with the spice traders who traded with Goa over centuries. No one really knows how old these garrafãoes are but a safe age assumption would be over 200 years old. What makes them so distinctive is the fact that they are free blown and not created out of moulds. Hence, technically, glass balloons — uneven and without a classical mouth.
Next time, you raise a feni toast in Fazenda Cazulo, think of the Dutch spy, the gangly men, the fallen apples, and Hansel Vaz, the man who not only makes Cazulo feni but can also spin a beguiling tale of the froth (feni).
Good to know
Address: Velsao, Cuelim, South Goa
Tour Duration: 2 hours
Cost: Rs 2,500 + 18% GST
Dress Code: None. However, you will have to sit in 6-8 inches of water for feni tasting, dress accordingly.
Booking: Message (Whatsapp Only): 7400031416. Download the app: http://Urbanaut.app.