Returning from death to create a ‘feni’ legacy
One man’s attempt at popularizing this Goan drink involves a tasting, cocktails and the chance to view century-old ‘garrafões’
It took 18 minutes to change Hansel Vaz’s life. Two years ago, a heart condition put the owner of Cazulo Premium Feni in hospital. He was medically dead for 18 minutes. His miraculous return gave him a new perspective on life. The question Vaz asked himself was, “Why did I return?"
“Lying in that hospital bed, an image came to mind. It was of a feni cellar stacked with garrafões (vintage, hand-blown glass containers). Every tiny detail of it was visible to me," he says. “I knew then that I had returned for this." He hastily drew a sketch on an envelope and started work at a Fazenda Cazulo (literally translates to cashew farm) in Cansaulim, south Goa. By the time Vaz got back on his feet, over a year later, the cellar was ready.
In December 2018, Beco das Garrafões—a feni cellar and tasting room—opened its doors to the public to experience what he calls the “Cashew Trail" ( ₹2,000 per head, including dinner). Guests visit the farm, learn about the process of making feni, taste some of it, and learn about its flavours and versatility in cocktails. “The whole evening is designed to give you a perspective to the drink. I am not just telling you about the process but giving an insight into the drink," he says.
“The setting is to convince you to look at the drink in a new light."
It’s certainly a spectacular setting, filled with all things typically Goan. A winding slope on Cansaulim Monte leads to a farm dotted with fruit trees. Peek through the branches and there’s a set of newly unearthed earthen pots, set in a semi-circle. In the centre of the property, a bright yellow single-storey structure occupies what used to be a chicken farm.
This is the cellar that is, fittingly, both the starting and ending point of the tour. Outside the arched doorway, guests are welcomed with a tangy Jambul Reddo (jamun, or Java plum, and feni cocktail).
Vaz begins the tour with an introduction to feni and its history. Considered Goa’s greatest spirit, this colourless clear liquid is said to date back centuries; some believe coconut feni predates the Portuguese capture of Goa. A potent drink with a strong aroma, it is made with coconut or cashew. The cashew feni possesses a Geographical Indication registration since 2009 as a speciality alcoholic beverage from Goa.
Feni is an integral part of every Goan’s upbringing. I grew up in a small village in north Goa. In the summer holidays, we would trek up the hill to a nearby cashew farm to “help" them. Our help consisted of collecting the fallen cashew apples, separating the fruit from the nut, and our favourite bit, stomping on the fruit to collect its juice. As a reward, we would be treated to the refreshing neero, the juice collected from the first distillation.
Vaz explains this entire process while taking visitors around the farm and showing them the different apparatuses needed to make feni. The stomping area is usually a rock-cut basin called colmbi. The juice collected here is fermented in an earthen pot (kodem), which is buried for three days. The distillery recently unearthed 14 kodem, buried in the 1970s—some of them had been damaged by the roots of a mango tree. Vaz has sealed the cracks and created a special structure to bury the pots in mud above ground, protecting them from such damage in the future. He maintains that this is one of only two distilleries that use these pots to make feni; others use plastic drums. “These pots are important. They were buried to keep a stable temperature and allow the yeast to grow at a steady rate", he adds.
“One of the hallmarks of this industry is that we do not use cultured yeast. The yeast is from the air and lies dormant in the clay. When you put the juice inside, the yeast interacts with it," he says. Making these pots, with small thin necks and round bodies, was a highly skilled art and he believes there’s just one potter left in Goa who still makes them.
The fermented liquid collected from these pots is then distilled. Feni has a three-step distillation process; the products of each distillation are urrak, cazulo and feni. The fermented liquid is boiled in an earthen pot called bhann, which is connected to a water bath. The vapours from the pot are filtered through a bamboo tube, get condensed in the water bath and then trickle down into another clay pot. In the olden days, the collected feni would be poured back and forth in glasses and the distillers would test its quality by just observing the bubbles. Taste is the only quality marker now.
The next part of the tour is the cellar. Vaz’s collection of garrafões lines the walls, backlit and throwing beams of greens, brown and blue light. A wooden table runs through the softly-lit room and the windows look out on to the lawn.
Vaz designed the cellar himself, using traditional methods and materials like red tiles, an earthen floor and walls made with chunam (lime). It was built to show off his collection of garrafões. The containers were introduced during the Portuguese rule and are priceless heirlooms today. Vaz’s collection, amounting to a few crores of rupees, is the result of seven years of convincing people to part with these heirlooms. He has paid for every piece, barring two he got from his grandmother. One of the families, which sold garrafões from its defunct winery, actually called him over for an interview to decide if he was the right person to take their collection. “When I started, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just buying them. I now see myself as a custodian of these priceless pieces."
During a tour of the cellar, Vaz points out the oldest one—green frosted glass with a few bubbles on the surface, worth a couple of lakhs. Some have a flat part at the bottom, formed when the glass blower placed it down to rest, some are marked with numbers, and some were made using moulds, which made it easier to replace a segment if broken. “I am like a detective/archaeologist," says the former geologist. “When I see those pots, I am trying to picture why and how the glass blower created each piece."
Once the cellar tour is done, Vaz bows out. It is now mixologist Karl Fernandes’ turn. Born and brought up in Mumbai, Fernandes joined Vaz last year because their thoughts aligned and “working with feni makes me stand out".
His toughest job is getting people to drink feni. He does it by teaching them the right way to drink it, helping them understand flavours, and offering it to them in the form of familiar cocktails. Unlike other tastings, where people are told to sniff a drink, Fernandes asks people to taste it first. “I don’t hide the fact that feni smells but I don’t want that to be the first thought people have on picking up a glass," he says.
The first glass is the cashew feni with sweet tropical notes. Fernandes serves it as a Peru Meru, with guava juice and Tabasco (the Goan variant of a Bloody Mary). Next is coconut feni. “It was called nasha paani and was the traditional style of feni," he says. This drink is tart and light. Fernandes uses it in a delicious Deconstructed Patoleo (a sweet made with coconut and jaggery and steamed in turmeric leaves).
Vaz has tried 23 expressions of feni, which usually involve coconut feni distilled with a potli (small bag) of botanicals like cumin seeds or ginger, lemongrass, orange peel. The third drink on the table is Dukshiri, feni made with the Indian sarsaparilla root (dukshiri). The root was used as a coolant and a painkiller, hence the name. Dukshiri is a smoky, earthy drink with a faint aftertaste of peanuts. It was traditionally drunk with cola but Fernandes serves it up as a Dukshiri Ginger Sour.
The tasting completed, people move out to the patio. There, the strains of Spanish music and the smell of barbequed food waft through the air. This winding down session involves cocktails, food and live music. The idea is to show people how feni works well with food (the menu changes seasonally). The spread is largely Goan—a tangy ansache sasav (a pineapple coconut curry), mutton xacuti, tendli bhaji (ivy gourd cooked with coconut) and for dessert, bol (a coconut jaggery cake) and doce (a sweet made with Bengal gram).
Vaz has been doing these tours for a year and they are always sold out; 70% of the crowd is local. Vaz doesn’t turn anyone away. “I am trying to train as many people so they leave knowing that they can talk about it. Just two people can make a difference. I need people to be my ambassadors of feni around the world," he says.
“I want people to raise the standards of the drink. If I am able to change the industry, that will be my greatest legacy," says Vaz. “This tour is just the beginning."
Joanna Lobo is a Mumbai-based journalist.