Cool waters swirl around my feet, as the sun plays peekaboo from between the tall trees that envelop us. I am seated at a spread in the middle of a freshwater spring, gentle ripples breaking against wooden table legs, ready to experience a tasting unlike any other.
We are in a cashew plantation deep in South Goa, in a village called Cuelim. This is Fazenda Cazulo, home to the world’s first feni cellar, started by Hansel Vaz. The 38-year-old is the proprietor of Cazulo Feni but, more importantly, he’s the man who has been leading Goa’s feni revolution. The state’s signature spirit received a Geographical Indicator (GI) tag in 2009, and Vaz has been instrumental in contemporising the drink.
Today, some of us are here to try out the ‘floating feni’ experience, which involves a walk through a cashew orchard and a visit to the traditional distillery (which sadly had to be skipped as the distillery was being cleaned out in preparation for feni season). The trail ends at the spring, where Vaz has set up an elaborate al fresco dining experience for visitors.
At the start of the experience, we are welcomed at the gates with a delicious feni cocktail as Vaz tells us about the origin and significance of the age-old spirit. He stands in the orchard, surrounded by a semi-circle of half-buried bhanns (earthen pots), as the cashew fruit’s potent aroma wafts through the trees.
We hear the fascinating tale of how the cashew fruit, native to Latin America, made its way to India’s west coast centuries ago. How there’s a law that prevents people from plucking the fruit off the tree (only cashews that are found fallen on the ground are used in making feni). About how some believe coconut feni predates the Portuguese colonisation of Goa. And how the big-bellied bhanns surrounding us could only be made by tall, gangly men from certain potter families.
Finally, it’s time to wade in.
We walk down a meandering path through the orchard and arrive at a flight of laterite steps. The stairs lead down to a dining setup placed squarely in the middle of the shallow spring. As I settle into my chair, the water pools around my feet, cold and soothing as it rises up around my ankles. Soon, dozens of tiny fish find their way to us and begin nibbling at our feet. It tickles, but not in an unpleasant way.
“There’s a reason we are seated in the water for this experience,” begins Vaz, taking his place at the head of the table. “The cool water helps bring down your body temperature and heightens the flavour of everything you eat or drink.” And boy, are we in for a treat!
The table is laden with a cornucopia of accompaniments — everything from Goan snacks like choris pão (Goan pork sausage in bread) and pinagr (a sweet made with rice flour, jaggery and coconut), to tropical fruits, spices, and Snickers bars. It’s a motley collection of ingredients, but Vaz assures us that every single item of food belongs on the table for a reason. And we’re about to find out.
To begin with, we are served a shot of the Cazulo cashew feni. Then, pointing to the peppercorns, green chilli, and capsicum on the platter, he asks, “Which of these three do you think pairs best with your drink?” We try each one in turn. My mouth is on fire when I sip the feni after taking a bite of the green peppercorn. Capsicum, on the other hand, seems to zap all flavour from the spirit and makes it taste flat.
The winner of this round is clearly the chilli. I bite into it and swirl some feni around my mouth, and the flavours are suddenly enhanced, giving the drink a roundness that was missing before.
The experiment continues. Soon, random ingredients are being passed across the table. Does cashew feni taste better with choris or cheese? Does pinagr pair better than olives with coconut feni? What are the chutney sandwiches and chikki for? And what does a bar of chocolate have to do with any of this?
As it turns out, Snickers is a great accompaniment to the Dukshiri, a coconut feni craft distilled with the roots of the sarsaparilla plant. With notes of petrichor, salted caramel and peanuts, it’s the most nuanced of the three feni varieties we try.
Between straight shots of feni, we’re also served samplings of two delicious cocktails. The first is a guava-infused concoction spiked with red chilli, which makes my lips pucker. The second is a dessert drink inspired by the Goan sweet patoleo, made with coconut feni, coconut milk, and liquid jaggery. Move aside, Irish cream.
Throughout the tasting, Vaz regales us with stories. Tales from his childhood, of preventing garden lizards from getting to the flowers growing on the coconut trees. Tidbits about how dukshiri was a drink for the worker class, meant to help ease their aches and pains after a long day at work. Each story gives me more insight into the layered history of the tipple, as well as his passion for it.
At the end of our meal, we get out of the water and head back to the orchard where we started the trail. Before I leave, I step into the Beco das Garrafões, the fazenda’s feni cellar and tasting room, which is home to hundreds of garrafões — balloon-like vintage glass bottles that are used to rest some of the feni distilled at Fazenda Cazulo.
It’s the perfect way to end the tour, in that softly lit room. After all, those garrafões are full to bursting with the possibility of many more pilgrims coming to worship at Goa’s sacred shrine of spirit.
Where: Velsao, Cuelim, South Goa [Exact location revealed on booking]
Timings: 11.30am to 1.30pm, or 2.30pm to 4.30pm
Cost: ₹2,500 per head
What to wear: Hat and sunglasses, cool casuals (remember you will wade into shallow water)
How to book: Message (WhatsApp Only) on +91.7400031416
Download the app: http://Urbanaut.app
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Written By: Shraddha Uchil
Photographs By: Shraddha Uchil