Chikoo bears fruit

Chikoo bears fruit

"Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated," Jyostna reminds me as I examine the heap of black jaggery evaporating from a copper pan on a chulha (traditional stove that uses cow dung as fuel.)

Earlier in the morning, I had walked across a narrow mud street from my homestay. It had taken me across a chikoo orchard to Jyostna's humble abode, situated in one of the parijaat-laden pada (a cluster of village). I had bumped into her, curious about a glass of chikoo wine, while she had been busy preparing a pela of kali gur daru (a glass of black jaggery alcohol). She had been both amused and aghast when I had declined her gur daru in favour of a fruit wine that has just earned her village a Geographical Indication (GI) tag.

I am in Bordi, a black-sand coastal town in the Palghar district of Maharashtra, located in the Dahanu-Gholvad belt, known to grow the sweetest of the mud apples, or what is commonly referred to as the chikoo.

Chikoo secrecy

Legend has it that in the 7th century, when the first batch of Zoroastrians arrived in India seeking refuge, the then local ruler Jadhav Rana sent the group a glass full of milk for a cryptic message indicating, "We are full here, there's no place." The Zoroastrians, in turn, returned the glass untouched, albeit a bit sweetened, indicating that "we will disturb no one, change nothing, yet will enhance the surroundings of our new home!"

The Zoroastrians did as promised, bringing nothing but ancestral techniques of farming, along with a mundane-looking brown fruit - the chikoo - that is today redefining tourism for the entire region.

Jyostna eventually gives up on her gur daru and leads me to an open camping ground that's hosting its Annual Chikoo Festival, initiated by the local farmers and the state tourism department. The festival aims to highlight the various avatars, flavours and utility of the expat-turned-chief resident fruit (chikoo is native to Mexico and Latin America). I spend a few happy hours visiting the stalls and women self-help groups that are embracing the abundant chikoo in the region by making exotic chikoo pickles, chikoo modaks, pastes, chips and ice-creams.

Over a traditional Parsi lunch, I meet Nagesh Pai, the youngest entrepreneur in the village, who has joined hands with his wife to create the country's first sparkling chikoo wine. Pouring me a glass of the family-owned brand fruit wine, Nagesh informs me, "Since the chikoo or sapodilla, as it is known in Mexico, is a major source of income in the region, the villagers are now leveraging this annual event to showcase the richness and up the glamorous quotient of an otherwise pale fruit by combining the elements of the village life, cultural exhibition, flea market, culinary traditions and live tribal performances."

Having grown up in the chikoo orchards in their homes, this wife-husband duo always wanted to explore the potential of their ancestral farm-grown fruits and give them their due recognition. Available in abundance for the entire year, most of the chikoo products failed to gather consumer attention. That's when Nagesh came up with the idea of chikoo wines. "I just follow my wife," jokes Nagesh, a mechanical engineer. He is one of the many youngsters in the village who are now returning from their high-paying jobs in the US to heed to their ancestral calling, as the demand for chikoo and allied products drive in hordes of tourists every year, thus contributing to the prosperity and wealth of their village.

In the farmers' shoes

Post lunch, we head to the day's highlight - a tour of the chikoo farm. After a half-an-hour's drive getting lost and seeing a sea of tribal kids playing around, we are welcomed by Shahrukh Irani, a fourth-generation Parsi specialising in the business of chikoo, mango and lychee cultivation, the region's three most important crops. I tramp happily through the farm full of gnarled trees with their impressive brown, red and yellow canopies.

Some of these are as old as 80 or 100 years, producing three harvests, each of about approximately 3,000 fruits annually. I'm joined by a large family which is here on a weekend get-together. It's almost as if we are back to our childhood as the kids are thrilled to climb a tree and identify the queen bee in the in-house apiary, another of Irani's fine-art and experiential avenues on the farm.

I act as a local chikoo farmer, plucking the fruits directly from the swaying trees, while Irani explains the harvesting cycles and processes of each fruit meticulously. While the mangoes are harvested seasonally, the chikoos can be seen growing throughout the year. Irani laments, "Mostly, chikoos could be harvested throughout the three seasons of the year. Of late, blame it on global warming and environmental changes, the chikoo season has become unpredictable." This year, they had a crop in July! I'm handed over a bag of lemongrass and chikoos, making the farm-to-table trend real.

For dinner, we retire to our homestay. Around a large wooden table, surrounded by Nagesh, his friends and families, there's a delicious bumpkin feast waiting for me, cooked by the village ladies. There are vegetable ukhandi made with drumsticks, purple yam, and sweet potatoes, accompanied by chikoo wine, pickle and garlic condiment. "It isn't what we say or what we think that defines us. But what we eat," affirms Nagesh. I believe it!

 

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