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The guardians of Goa's feni galaxy

A new generation of farmers and feni makers, who also hold day jobs, are carrying on the legacy of distilling Goa’s unique spirit

Fruit-laden trees at Bjorn Dias’ cashew farm. (Photo: Joanna Lobo)
Fruit-laden trees at Bjorn Dias’ cashew farm. (Photo: Joanna Lobo)

Feni, the clear, aromatic spirit distilled from cashew juice and unique to Goa, has slowly made its way to bar and cocktail menus and to heritage tours based on “feni experiences and tastings”. Behind this transformation is a new generation of cashew farmers who are keeping the traditional processes of feni-making alive, making it a spirit worthy of a mixologist’s award-winning cocktail.

Bjorn Dias’ day begins at 6am, when he heads to the soreachi bhatti or distillery on his family’s cashew farm in Santa Cruz. He empties the fermented cashew juice into a copper bhann (pot), covers it with a cement stopper, seals the gaps with cloth dipped in roinn (anthill mud) and starts a fire. The first part of his day is done even before the others wake up. This has been Dias’ routine since he was 14; back then, he would complete his chores before heading to school and return to help with picking the fruit, de-seeding and stomping.

Now 34, Dias and his sister Bianca, 41, run the farm that has been in their family for three generations. Cashew is the main crop, though they have fruit trees, vegetables and herbs. “To take care of this is no easy task. In this business, there is no profit. Cashews and seeds fetch money only after processing,” he says, sweeping his arm out to indicate the 15-acre farm. To supplement his income, he takes on real estate and construction work projects and helps out at the family’s bakery, Bell’s Cakes & Pastries, in Santa Cruz. “The reason we (still) make feni is interest,” says Dias, who is a firm believer in doing things the traditional way.

About 11km north, near the Mapusa river, Ruella D’Souza, 34, is at the gate of her cashew farm in Ecoxim in Goa, talking to a villager. A plastic bottle and money changes hands. D’Souza disappears into the house and returns with the bottle filled with a clear liquid, which she hands over to the man at the gate. It’s cashew season and D’Souza is used to customers stopping by to buy a bottle of feni, urrak (the first distillate) or neero (cashew juice) made on her farm.

D’Souza and her husband Edison D’Sa, 36, work like a tag-team: seamlessly exchanging roles and dividing time between the farm, which has been in the D’Sa family for three generations, and the house. Edison’s father, Thomas, planted most of the cashew trees on the property. After his death, D’Sa’s mother, Edith took over, and the farm continued producing and selling its cashew crop, and other vegetables and fruits.

It was only in 2015 that feni production began, two years after D’Sa returned to Goa from Kerala and took over the farm having completed his studies in veterinary science in 2013. D’Souza joined him in 2018 after they married. “I hadn’t done this kind of work before,” she says. “Edison knew what to do and I just slipped into it.” Today, she is everywhere, monitoring the work, dealing with customers, driving the workers to the other farm, and more.

Together with Edith, they look after their cows, poultry, cats and dogs, and manage the sale of pepper, turmeric, milk, and coconut oil, besides the cashew products. “Everyone pools in. We do the main work in the early morning or late evening,” says D’Sa. Everything runs to schedule because the couple also has day jobs: D’Souza is an assistant professor at a local college and D’Sa is a veterinarian.

Cashew season allows them time for little else. “Sometimes it gets really crazy. The three months (February/March to May) of the season are hectic,” says D’Souza. They do one distillation a day, at 5am, and collection and juicing take place in the evening.

Edison D’Sa makin feni. (Photo: Joanna Lobo)
Edison D’Sa makin feni. (Photo: Joanna Lobo)

Dias agrees that there’s always work on the farm, especially during cashew season: clearing the colmi (oval basin cut into a rock where the cashew is stomped), de-seeding the fruit, monitoring collection, cleaning the distillation pots, and delivering urrak and neero (the final juice extracted from the cashew) to customers. Bjorn brews cashew feni the traditional way using a clay pot (launni) to collect the distillate, and storing the distilled liquid in glass containers called garrafoes.

As Dias takes me around the farm, the family’s dogs bounding about us, he provides a running commentary on the feni-making process, talking about good seasons where smashing was done twice a day, the difficulties in sourcing the clay pots, how yield is measured in buckets (“one bucket of nuts equals ten of cashew”), and his plans to plant more cashew trees. An avid traveller himself, Dias wants to invite tourists to experience farm life and observe the feni-making process. “It’s about keeping things alive,” he says, as he stokes a fire to roast cashewnuts. “The next generation isn’t going to do this.”

Feni produced in farms across Goa is sold to individual customers as well as to larger brands which bottle it. The price starts at around 200 a litre, with 500 a litre being the upper limit. The income generated from cashew takes care of 60-70% of labourers’ wages, says D’Sa.

“Goa is the only place where you get income from the fruit as well as the seed. You need to have a steady income coming in. You can rely on this (the farm) only if it can generate that income,” he adds. His future plans include automating things, fixing the old machines, and returning to the farm full-time.

“There has been an increase in interest in feni. People are drinking it, starting new brands…,” says Hansel Vaz, among the spirit’s biggest champions and the owner of Cazulo Premium Feni, one of the oldest feni brands in Goa. “What Goa needs now are feni superstars, who can keep the legacy going.”

Joanna Lobo is a Goa-based journalist.

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