Going nuts in Goa

Going nuts in Goa
And I thought time travel was an impossible dream. That too stepping back 500 years to a humid afternoon when a Portuguese sailor landed in Goa with a cashew sapling in hand. The sailor remains nameless. Faceless. The exact date unmarked on the calendar.

Forgotten by history. I know not the sailor. But I scribbled his image hastily — his lips chapped, his hair tousled, his skin tanned bronze from being too long on the sea. He, clinging to the cashew tree, a native of Brazil. That’s the first portrait in my mind as I arrived in Goa for a cashew trail.

Journey of a nut

Even before I could pluck the pear-shaped cashew apple off a bough, a vivid montage was hastening into an aphoristic cashew narrative. Hopping time zones. Picking threads. Pictures. Names. Memories. Vignettes running in my head like mischievous scallywags. Of that anonymous sailor in white suit. Of the cashew apple which is disparaged as a false fruit; its perfidy forgiven for the lone nut that hangs at the end of the swollen stalk. Of a rock-hewn pit where the fruit is stomped by barefoot men. Of colossal copper stills sealed with anthill clay in which the cashew juice is simmered for urak and feni, the two popular cashew drinks. Of unsung women who sedulously crack the cashew nut — one nut at a time — to separate the sour kernel from the magical cashew nut. Of a man called Valentino Vaz who lent dignity to the cashew feni. Of Mario Miranda, the iconic cartoonist, who painted a feni bottle label and asked for “nice bebinca” as remuneration (that sketch is now on the bottle of Lembranca feni). Amidst the lucid montage stood a reticent man blurring centuries to string the cashew threads. To assiduously retell the story of cashew. That man called Thomas Abraham who created the cashew trail. As if in a moment of epiphany.

The Portuguese first brought the cashew tree to Goa. A tree that has pistachio and poison ivy as distant cousins. The trail begins where it should begin. In a cashew farm. I could have laced my sneakers, tied my hair in a tight pony, poured a bucket of sunscreen and pedal 50 km from Valpoi to Arrosim beach for a barbecue by the palms downed with feni-infused cocktails. But, instead of the bicycle trail, I drove to the cashew farm of Cedric & Mac Vaz in Valpoi. The April sun was burning bright, and the air heavy with the aroma of cashew apples — green, yellow, red.

“Here’s the stick and the basket. Make sure you only pick tree-ripened or fallen cashew apples. Be quick because the apples perish fast,” Mac of Madame Rosa Distillery spewed fruit-picking instructions. The ground under my feet was hot and the best cashew trees stood beyond a small rock wall. I took off my stilettos, jumped over the wall, walked the thorny path as faraway there waited a thousand cashew apples hanging precariously from the boughs. I picked the fallen ones and chewed into a fresh red fruit which is sweet with a hint of wooziness.

Cashew overdose

The next step: de-seed the nut and throw the apples in a rock pit (colmbi) and stomp it barefoot to get the juices flowing. I baulked at the idea of an impromptu cashew juice pedicure. I stood by the fire blazing in clay hearths on which sat stout copper pots filled with 90 litres of cashew apple juice to be simmered, fermented and distilled into urak and feni. Later, in a cashew factory, I watched men steam and roast raw cashew nuts which are then hand-cracked to separate the caustic shell from the fruit. The nut is thereafter sorted, graded to be sold in the market, and the shell comes handy in making varnish and insecticides.

So much cashew happened in one day that I, a teetotaller, went tipsy just with the cashew whiff. But there was more waiting. More cashew. This time as cashew-in-food lessons from chef Saulo Bacchilega who can make a million cashew dishes with the twirl of a ladle. Cashew Alle Belle parfait. Cashew and curry leaf pesto for linguini pasta.

Mongolian cashew curry. Cashew stuffed in filo served with feni anglaise. Cashew jam. Cashew-mango chutney. Cashew marinade for chicken dish. Cashew dip made of cashew paste, cream cheese and condiments. So much that one white bean-shaped nut can be turned into. Roasted. Braised. Broken. Tossed. Dressed. So much from a nut that grows outside a false fruit.

Forget the stomach, even my mind was stuffed with cashew. Not bushwa these, though. And I was surely not the only one. At the cashew trail brunch, I watched children giggle and squawk as they stomped cashew apples in a pit; couples squabbling over how to make the best cashew or feni-infused dish in the challenging cook-off; men happily thinning their wallets for a 45-litre feni bottle auction; women having their feet pampered with cold-compressed cashew oil. In the middle of all this stood the man to whom the cashew trail idea came as a near epiphany. The man called Thomas Abraham. And in a quiet corner sat the frail, old Valentino Vaz, the man who lent dignity to feni. As the palm fronds swayed in the April breeze, I, again, scribbled the image of the sailor, his lips chapped, his hair tousled, his skin tanned… On the imagined canvas, I added a white squiggle. Of a cashew nut.

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