Goan cashew farmers are caught between rising costs and big business.
If one made the attempt to distil Goa’s hot and humid tropical slow burn weather into a glass, or a peg as the system would allow it, one guesses it would all come down to feni, a shot of liquefied crystal with a hint of the ashen. The local alcoholic drink has a character and body all its own and its characteristics- the acquired cheese, fish and fruit aroma and its laidback high- have come to define something quintessentially Goan. It’s a rainy Goan Sunday in a bottle and the company of a little fish curry rice does a very satisfied man make. It’s the spark of every fiesta, celebration, family gathering or humble meal.
Deemed ‘country liquor’ by the alcohol laws, feni was a drink meant to be cooked up in the neighborhood, a veritable ‘cottage industry’. Every self respecting cashew plantation had its own distillery and brewed its own brand of fine feni. Every bit of raw material that went into a batch was available in the premises. The cashew fruit harvest was plucked, juiced, and buried in the earth and allowed to ferment into alcohol. This heady juice was later, heated into vapour over a furnace fuelled by wood from the cashew trees themselves. The rising vapours were collected and cooled in a container and voila! Your local variety was ready for consumption. As homegrown and earthy as the vernacular. And there is more to it than that.
The drink has been recognized as a ‘geographical indicator’ (GI) for Goa. A GI not only acts as mark of quality but ensures that just the tag of ‘feni’ would be instantly recognised across the world as a drink that has its origins in Goa. Also, what is almost always left unmentioned are the medical properties of the brew. A hydroxide, it is an excellent cure for stomach cramps and most locals will vouch for the fact that,” A peg a day keeps the doctors away.”
Even as the drink continues to grow in popularity, the last few years has seen a distinct lack of cheer at the roots of the feni phenomenon. It has been tough time for the small plantation owners. Like so many local industries, big business is threatening to put an end to the local, neighbourhood brew. In the villages of Bicholim district where cashew plantations and therefore, feni distilleries have thrived for centuries, the lack of skilled labour and the increasing cost of raw materials are causing the small-time farmer-brewer increasing apprehensions on whether or not he must continue with this traditional practice.
One of the more prosperous states in India, Goa faces an acute shortage of skilled laborers. Even government offices like the telephone exchange and electricity department are left short changed in that department, let alone the small farmer. “Feni making is a skill passed on from generation to generation,” says a farmer,” and in such conditions, it is unrealistic that the next generation would like to continue with the practice.” The ever increasing costs and paucity of fuel and labour and the virtual shutting down of artisans who make the traditional wooden vessels have put the local distillery is jeopardy and they would rather choose to sell their harvest to the big businesses than continue with their brand.
The way ahead for these traditional practitioners seems bleak; sad news in a state that takes pride in its untaxed, cheap and easy available alcohol. Subsidies, sops, promotion, feni tourism; these are all options that the government can look into and consider. What it will be ensuring is employment for hundreds, the survival of a vital cultural and culinary tradition and some local cheer.
*the article was modified on 30/08/2011. Previously, it erroneously mentioned that the petition for the GI was still in progress. But feni was given GI status on 23rd may 2009.