LIONEL MESSIAS

Coconut Feni on its last legs

12, Apr 2011

If you live in the South and are a closeted coconut feni drinker, and want to come out in the open now because your perception of the social stigma has changed, it’s too late for that. The drink is on wobbly legs and not even a deserved price hike to make it profitable for the producers can salvage the distilling of coconut feni, that somehow always was exclusive to the South.

Considered the drink of plebeians for generations, those who saw themselves too noble to be seen drinking it in public drank it only within the privacy of their homes.

Researching this article I found many now yearn for the drink. It was almost like they were having withdrawal symptoms. The plebs I assure you are still getting their hooch and hooch it is, because it’s now distilled from jaggery, cheap sugar or, from a combination of both raw materials depending on availability and pricing factors.

Some use toddy to dilute or virtually as a concentrate to take the edge off the fermenting jaggery. Bhatcars in the South whose cashew trees are distilled for caju feni by the few distillers left willing to go through a tedious auction process assure me the drink is still available in slowly diminishing quantities but purity is entirely
dependent on the price you pay per kolso.

By contrast, liquor in the so-called IMFL sector is priced according to brand but where the brand decides both quality and price.

The government that swears by aam aadmi is meanwhile in a deep coma and couldn’t care less for a genuine cottage industry so steeped in custom and belief that it has spawned folklore. “Take a small dose of it regularly and you will never get a cold,” swears Margao-based plantation (he also grows rubber and palmolein) owner Roy Antao. He has about two lakh sqm under cashew cultivation only in Potrem, Sanguem.

A Margao liquor retailer asks: “It’s a paradox, but what’s wrong with coconut feni produced from jaggery? There’s a such a fine line in the taste difference you cannot tell.” He might be right, but shouldn’t it be called by some other name then?

I was shown the homes of a clan of brothers in Seraulim who make coconut feni from jaggery. It is a fact that people like them (the brothers are all employed) pay tax on coconut trees only to retain their toddy tapping license. But the trees are never tapped. There are hardly any toddy -tappers left that have the legs for for slithering up a tree; and no new generation candidates either for the job. Antao for instance can’t even remember when he stopped getting his coconut trees (nearly 200) tapped -“perhaps 20-25 years ago.”

Nelito Menezes of Goa Velha stopped tapping his trees (600 in 30,000 sqm) 15-20 years ago when he had concerns that his trees could also come under laws like the Goa, Daman & Diu Agricultural Tenancy Act,1964. “Legal issues and labour problems have caused the coconut feni drought.”

In the Pale area of Velsao-Pale known for its toddy tappers in the past, there is one known toddy tapper. He is as popular as Lionel Messi is in these parts, from Issorcim-Hollant where I first heard of him, to Betalbatim where I was again given his reference.

A Margao liquor retailer, Wilson Vaz of Vaz Enterprises, asks, “How can the industry survive when a toddy tapper has to climb up 20 trees a day, twice daily, just to fill up one kolso? He agrees that coconut feni should have been “appropriately” priced a long time ago and describes the auctioning of cashew as ‘chaotic.’ So messed-up that auctions take place even before the flowering of the cashew tree begins.

Plantation owners in fact say they are baffled by the auction rules that bind a distiller to confine all his activities to within the boundaries of that particular plantation. Antao last produced 40 kolsos because of the shortage of labour. “So we collected only the nuts and threw away the fruit. We could otherwise collect 200 kolsos.”

There are a host of problems including the usual litany about the labour shortage which Goan entrepreneurs at least can’t seem to go beyond. Also, one-sided land laws that bhatcars claim prevent them from giving out their plantations to distillers. But, this is far from the truth. Says Antao: “After toddy tapping rates were last increased 20 years ago (the last increase was Rs 20 per tree) toddy tappers stayed away as they found it expensive” – a fact closer to the truth.

Bottom-line: coconut feni is retailed at cut-rate prices which cannot keep the food chain happy. That too, a food-chain forced to work under absolute restriction (Excise officials even mark coconut trees for tapping).

Says Mac Vaz of Madam Rosa, “Unlike the organized wine industry, the feni industry (both coconut and caju) is facing an acute short supply of raw material.” Which is ironic, considering caju feni only recently got the geographical indicator.

Fortunately for coconut feni, aficionados like Wilson Vaz exist. He even had a tie-up with Hindustan Lever once to export coconut feni to the Gulf. Vaz sources his feni in bulk (if you can call it that) from a certain distiller in Curtorim and bottles his own brand. “I do it to keep my mother busy,” he says.

At the end, its mothers like his and distillers like the man from Curtorim that help keep an age-old even venerable tradition alive. Long Live the King! Hic.

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