Feni, the Spirit of Goa
Iris C F Gomes
Feni, or fenny, is an integral part of Goan culture. Feni’s distinct flavour and notes typify Goa and the Goan environment because of its derivation from mainly two separate sources of the coconut and the cashew apple. The two major variations of feni are thus coconut feni and cashew feni. Both types of feni are greatly enjoyed by Goans and foreigners alike. In 2009, cashew feni was granted Geographical Indication status, which means that it cannot be produced anywhere else other than in Goa. This status has not been given to coconut feni yet. Feni is no longer considered a country liquor and is now a heritage brew.
Coconut feni, which is made from toddy, existed before cashew feni. It is said that coconut feni is a pre-Portuguese invention, but cashew and other varieties came about due to Portuguese influence. A fun fact is that cashew trees were brought to Goa by the Portuguese not for the fruit or the seed but to halt the erosion of topsoil during the torrential Goan monsoons. Goan feni is still very much locally produced by small scale producers and mostly in South Goa. This is consumed by Goan families or bought by retailers, bars and restaurants in Goa. In recent years, Goa has seen the emergence of many feni brands such as Lembranca, Spirit of India, Cazulo, and Rhea that export the drink to other countries.
The process of making coconut feni begins with collecting toddy from the bud of the coconut tree flower in an earthen pot called zamono or damonem. This is collected in the morning and in the evening. Finally the toddytapper collects it in a dudhinem, a gourd-shaped vessel, and pours it into a kollso or clay pot. The toddy is left to ferment in vessels called monn or jhallo for three days. It is then distilled in a soreachi bhatti (traditional distillery). Coconut feni is distilled twice. The first distillate is called mollop and has 15% alcohol content. Four pots of toddy can produce two pots of mollop. Commercial coconut feni has the alcohol strength of 42.8%, while local distilleries can produce feni with the alcohol strength of up to 45%. This feni is the result of the distillation of a combination of four pots of mollop and one pot of toddy. Coconut feni, which should be available perennially, is not as readily obtainable locally as it used to be as a result of a decline in toddy tapping, a labour-intensive occupation that is being eschewed in favour of white collar jobs.
Cashew feni is highly dependent on the crop of cashew apples and is seasonal with distillation taking place from February to mid-May. Only ripe cashew apples that have fallen to the ground are collected and de-seeded because it is believed that plucking them from the trees will affect the ripening of other fruit. The cashew apples are then placed in a basin cut out of rock called colmbi and stomped on to release the juice. These days pingre (cage), a press is used to accomplish the same outcome as stomping. The pulp is formed into a mound and kept together with a vine. A heavy weight is placed over the pulp and a worker will stand on this weight to produce a cool, thirst-quenching drink called neero. Neero has a very short shelf life of a few hours. The first extracted juice, which cannot be consumed directly owing to its acidic nature, is used to make the feni by letting it ferment for about three days in a large earthen pot that is buried partially in the soil. Plastic containers have given way to the traditional earthen pot, or kodem, in many cases, for practical reasons. The bhatti, or traditional still, is used, and the fermented juice is boiled in a bhann which used to be an earthen pot but has now been replaced by copper pots. The first distillate of 15%-16% alcohol strength called urrack is collected in a vessel called launni. The second distillate is cazulo, and the final distillate is feni. The triple-distilled cashew feni is normally of an alcoholic strength of up to 45%.
Feni can be consumed neat, with ice, water or Limca, or in a cocktail. Its medicinal properties are purported to be potent and able to cure colds, stomach ailments and heal cuts and wounds when topically applied.
The heritage liquor has finally found a place on the world map, enjoyed by liquor connoisseurs in India and abroad, and continues to make an indelible mark in its own right as part of Goa’s cultural legacy.