April 07, 2012

Cashews And ‘Nuts’

As we swept past a turn on the NH66 heading South, a lush green rice field emerged by the roadside.

Sandwiched between the highway and a hill and bounded on the west by a smattering of banana plants along an outer embankment of mud and laterite breached by an opening to channel water into the field, the dollop of green was like fresh lemonade to the eyes in a deciduous landscape and red earth.

Canacona lay 15 kms away.

We had driven through Balli on the NH66 on our way to Cotigao, dodging shadows while they sought to embrace us in the early March morning light filtering through trees, a sight that kept us company all the way through.

Leaves danced on the road, swallowing us up like a blanket moving up and over the head, except this blanket stretched kilometres on end and I was more than happy to let it slide over, and over. To be ‘netted’ without being constrained is to be embraced without being held. It’s a different feeling.

The caress of the road is experienced in myriad ways.

It was a fine morning for the road and I was relieved to be in Goa and about the place. A day of hiking in the Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary beckoned us both. Philip’s binoculars and camera lay in a bag between the seats while my own was hidden away in a canvas bag drawn around my neck.

While early March is not the best time to go cashew hopping in the hills about Goa, for the cashew season is only just about beginning, I was nevertheless struck by the visible absence of the distinctive cashew fruits in trees along the way, not even in the cashew plantation the Government of Goa has undertaken within or along the limits of the Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary that we passed by later that morning. (See photo below).

“Late March and April is when you’ll see the trees awash with cashew fruits,” Philip said. While I was aware of it, I’d hoped to be enlivened by colourful cashew fruits hanging from branches roadside.

In some parts, cashew harvesting is over by mid-April, in other parts it marks the beginning when fruits are harvested for Feni, the local alcoholic drink, and cashew nuts for processing at cashew factories.

A Goan summer sojourn is incomplete without cashews, and mine was saved, however fleetingly, by a local villager a few kilometres out of Balli.

She was walking along the road carrying on her head a large plastic tub heaped with cashew fruits. The fruits still retained cashew nuts. Atop the heap of cashews a small plastic bucket lay face-down, likely for use in collecting cashew nuts once separated from the fruits.

In the day to follow we would be buffeted by the overpoweringly deep and heavy smell (fragrance to some) of cashew distillation roadside, on two occasions each, enroute to Cotigao and back.

One was at Shisheval not far from where we stopped for cold drinks at a local shop across the road from a temple to quench our thirst from hiking in the wildlife sanctuary all day.

In another instance a small makeshift distillery in the open space between houses with sloping roofs was being readied to host a rudimentary distillery. The thatched shelter rose from four wooden supports in the open. The floor was levelled out and probably awaited a coat of cow dung. Early for the season I thought back then though maybe not quite.

Approaching May, the Goan countryside is dotted with local cashew distilleries housed in the open in cashew plantations. They’re mostly constructed from no more than four wooden supports driven into the earth and roofed with coconut fronds to shade the earthen or copper pots used to distil cashew juice obtained from crushing cashew fruits in a basin carved out of laterite rock or in cemented enclosures on raised platforms.

Then it’s time for distilling Goa’s best known alcoholic drink, the Feni.

Urrack, an early by-product of the same distillation process, is only marginally lesser known than Feni, atleast in Goa, and equally in demand among locals if not more than its more illustrious sibling. And so it is for Neero.

Villagers will carry their cashew produce to the local distillery, their own or that belonging to another, to sell the produce for a price. If the cashew distiller will buy cashew nuts they’ll likely offload them too, the price for raw cashew nuts ranging between Rs. 70 – 90 per kilo depending upon the demand for processed cashew nuts in the market. Processed cashew nuts produced by cashew factories sell between Rs. 450/- and Rs. 600/- per kilo subject to market demand.

Manohar Parrikar, after taking office as Goa’s Chief Minister last month, has indicated introducing a minimum support price for Goa’s cashew cultivators, a benefit only enjoyed by areca nut and coconut cultivators. The BJP manifesto prior to its election victory was reported to have promised a support price of Rs. 90/- per kilo of raw cashew nuts.

Watching the middle-aged woman walk with the load on her head, probably eking out sustenance from a few cashew trees in a small plot of land, an income that’s as seasonal as it gets, a minimum support price for cashews would go some minimal way in alleviating finances.

Cashew nuts are currency, a reality that escapes no one in Goa, not even children plotting capers to meet their objectives like the bunch of us ‘Nuts’ did growing up.

Back from school one year the lot of us had financed the purchase of our cricket kit from selling raw cashew nuts at a neighbourhood shop for Rs. 10/- per kilo. If any of our parents had learnt how we’d sourced our cashew nuts, from raiding cashew trees in the countryside, there’d be hell to pay, including a tight slap or two administered to each ‘Nut’ complicit in the childhood caper.

The cricket kit barely lasted beyond two seasons, with the bat we’d purchased second-hand for Rs. 37/- from Tufaan Sports Club, a grouping of local Muslim boys from families with a relative or two working in the Gulf, giving away even sooner, barely two matches into the summer. It splintered along the side quickly enough to stir disappointment and anger amongst us.

At the time of its purchase it hadn’t occurred to us, aged no more than 11-13 years each, that the innocuous tape firmly binding the bottom of the bat was less of a protection for the bat from future blows than from the need to hide the deep crack along its length from past blows.

Much recrimination resulted between us and them. But there’s only so much and only so long 11 year-olds will hold a grudge. Four kilos of cashew nuts went down the drain, not to speak of ‘loss of face’ for having being taken for a ride. Maybe it even served us right, for while I agree in principle with ‘Two wrongs do not make a right’, I’d however make an exception in our case back then.

Soon the woman passed us, walking rhythmically and wiping sweat from her brow periodically.

The road stretched long before her, and us.

Soon we passed her.

Related Link

Read my account of meeting A Feni Consultant In The Jungle.


Susan Scheid said...

Beautiful piece. Thank you for providing such a lovely window into this world.

Connie said...

This was a very interesting post, Anil. I love to eat cashews, but I didn't know an alcoholic drink was made from them. I enjoyed hearing the story from your youth too. :D

Anil P said...

Susan Scheid: Thank you.

Daisy: Thanks. I like Cashews too.

Feni may not be known as much outside of India, and in India not as well known outside of Goa. But back here it's the best known product of cashews.

Urraq and Neera are the other cashew drinks though Feni qualifies more as an alcoholic drink than the other two.

Right now is the Urraq manufacturing season in Goa.

More childhood than youth :-)

Anonymous said...

I remember the Niro (Neera as you called it), that is the pure colorless juice of the squeezed fruits that would flow almost at the end of the squeezing process. It is quite sweet as you may know. The fruits in Goa come in red and yellow hues.
The squeezing was done in a big 'tub' carved in a laterite stone with a small drain for the juice to pass into a container. This juice could stain clothes so while me and my cousins watched our uncles or aunts beating the fruits with wooden mallet and later with their feet, we had no botheration of what was on them but only waited for the arduous 1 hour long process to be over to drink Niro.
If one knew how to eat the fruit, they'd do it in the morning to avoid the sap getting into the fruit. I've heard that now the juice is extracted using machanized crushers and hence no more Niro unfortunately.
And do you remember extracting the 'bibo' out of the green cashew fruit before it hardened? It is an art not to get the sap that stains the fingers. And I remember that many of my classmates would be punished for having that unadulterated joy of eating the wild delicacies.
Urraq is a version of 'Arrak' from Karnataka. Only Urraq is made from cashew fruit juice. It is the first distillate from the juice and apparently Feni is the next distillate of Urraq.
Thanks for transforming me back into my childhood that I'd like things like this to relive again for.

Anil P said...

Magan: True, it's quite sweet.

I recollect seeing villagers ensconced by the roadside with bottles of Neero for sale. I need to scan prints of photos I took of Niro vendors years ago, mostly thin elderly men in half-pants and wrinkled foreheads.

The sale of Neera was the first tangible indication of processing of cashews commencing for the season. Urraq and Feni would usually follow next. Goan countryside would smell different during the cashew season on account of cashews being processed into various drinks.

Typically, Whisky or Brandy bottles, not so much Rum, would be washed and reused to package Neera, the bottles of Neera lined up in front of the vendor as he sat roadside in the scorching Sun. Doctor's Brandy bottles used to be commonly used, likely because Doctor's Brandy has been around for long as well as because it was probably consumed more.

The crushing of cashews that you mention is quite a sight. It must have been a community activity at your place.

I've included a link at the end of this post of an encounter with a Feni Consultant In A Jungle in whose distillery they were readying the next batch of cashews for crushing and processing into Urrack and Feni, the final distillate.

I haven't seen mechanized crushers yet, only the manual process. That's probably because out in the countryside, in villages, local distilleries do not operate at factory scale.

Sure, I remember Bibo and I've stained my fingers on more occasions than I can remember until I learnt to avoid the staining.

In Karnataka, in the countryside I've travelled, especially villages, boards painted outside shops would read: Arrack Shop.

I can imagine the memories of those carefree days this must bring. Thank you.

Meena Venkataraman said...

Such a beautiful piece...enjoyed reading it. Thanks for the detailed account Anil

Riot Kitty said...

The colors and story here are amazing as usual. What do you do that you are on the road so much?

Anil P said...

Meena Venkataraman: Thank you.

Riot Kitty: Thank you.

Well, that's a good question :-) Plain meandering, with or without purpose, so long as I get an excuse to be outdoors. I do not get as many opportunities to travel as I'd like but make the most of it when I do. Just being out so to speak.

If I was a travelling salesman, I'd have made a good traveller, not so much a good salesman :-)

Lucy said...

What a fascinating post, including your follow-up exchange with Magan.

I'd often wondered about cashews, which I enjoy very much, but had heard different things about, including that the cultivation and processing of them might be exploitative of poor people, and that there are toxic gases released which make enclosed factories dangerous for people working there, so I try to buy fair-trade or organic ones in the hopes these are better. Knowing that they are trying to ensure fair prices, and that the production is still very small scale, at least in Goa, is reassuring.

Also it always puzzled me that there is apparently only one small nut from each fruit, which seemed very uneconomic, so it's illuminating to know that the fruits are used for other things too.

And I really enjoyed your story about the cashews and the cricket kit!

Red said...

I don't quite enjoy the cashew fruit, something to do with my taste buds but feni I like :) a bunch of us had been to Gorai beach once and had it for the first time. Dunno if it was because we were first timers or if it was the heat or the combo of that, we just giggled a lot and hmm lets just leave it at that.

Vivid colors and is the roadside mud really that rich brownish red or are these hues from post photo processing

Anonymous said...

"To be ‘netted’ without being constrained is to be embraced without being held. It’s a different feeling." It's such a provoking line :)

Anil P said...

Lucy: Thank you. Cashew cultivation is not seasonal as it's with crops. The cashew plantations are pretty much on their own save a degree of maintenance, and guarding against depredations.

The prices that cashew factory labour force commands is certainly lower than a similar work profile might command in the Western world and as also in comparison with other industries in India. It's mostly a rural economy, with the workforce drawn from neighbouring villages. Helps them contribute to the family income.

One of the cashew factories I visited a while back was almost entirely staffed by women, helping empower them.

A single nut is surely not economic. The fruit however has many uses.

Red: Feni is a taste acquired. Not many would take to it as they might other drinks.

As for the cashew fruit it can be acidic to an extent, though not always. The fruit can actually be quite tasty and juicy.

The mud is actually that red, and can be redder. The colour is originally as vivid and striking.

Anon: Provoking as in thought provoking? :-)

Anonymous said...

In thought and 'naturally' more :)

Anil P said...

Anon: Hmmm. :-)