A date with the winter ambrosia

Nolen gur is a speciality of Bengal. People wait for the date palm jaggery to arrive in the winter market. But as demand rises, the supply chain has to work overtime to keep pace with the changing weather pattern that affects production, writes Uttara Gan

MELT-IN -THE-MOUTH Sweets made of nolen gur. photos by author

Remember the 1973 Bollywood film Saudagar set in a Bengal village starring Amitabh Bachchan and Nutan? An adaptation of Bengali writer Narendranath Mitra’s short story Raas, the film depicted a pre-stardom Big B (in a skull cap and lungi) wooing Nutan (a widow, adept in preparing the jaggery) just to take forward his trade of gur (palm jaggery) sale so that he can save and marry another woman finally. 

The storyline of the film — a scheming Amitabh Bachchan with an ulterior motive behind his wooing of Nutan — apart, Saudagar also depicts in great detail how the famous Bengal jaggery is prepared with Nutan playing the woman with wonder skills that go into stirring that treacly concoction called nolen gur. 

Even a few years ago, nolen gur was a winter-special delicacy used at homes and traditional sweetmeat shops of Bengal. But as chefs and food experts discovered this natural flavourful sweetener and began to experiment with it, the humble fresh jaggery, processed from date palm sap, turned into a gastronomic phenomenon.

While the use of jaggery for preparing delicacies or cooking is known across India, nolen gur is unique to Bengal. The collection of the liquid sap is a specialised job and undertaken by a group of people known as siuli, who are expert tree climbers. They also know which trees to tap and when. All calculations are based on knowledge handed down for generations and personal experience. 

A siuli climbs the tree, makes slits in the stem just where the leaves branch out, and attach narrow pipes to them; a small clay pot is tied beneath the free end of the pipes. All through the night the sap drips into the pots. The pots are brought down at dawn. The sap is poured into a metallic pan and stirred over a wood-fired oven. The colour of the sap changes from light to dark brown and has a relatively thicker consistency. The pan is removed from fire, the liquid poured in clay pots and taken to the market for sale.

Sweetmeats

Even though the demand for their white rasogolla never recedes, in winter there is a heavy demand for their nolen gur flavoured rasogolla, said Dhiman Das, a scion of the famous K C Das family. It is his ancestor Nabin Das who is acknowledged as the inventor of the now GI-tagged Banglar Rasogolla. Other traditional sweetmeat manufacturers also agreed that demand for sandesh and other sweets flavoured with nolen gur or notun gur (new jaggery) go up in winter.

One of the popular sweetmeats consumed by Bengalis for ages in winter are joynogorer moa. Joynagar is a suburban town to the south of Kolkata where moa or roundels made from khoi (popped rice) and nolen gur are very famous. The gur is also used liberally during the making of various kinds of pithe, traditional pancakes with sweet fillings, again a winter delicacy.

With the spread of molecular gastronomy, food experts are also finding innovative ways to use its flavouring properties.

“Earlier, in winter, clients used to ask us to provide notun gur rasogolla as part of the marriage feasts,” said Khokon Das, who runs a catering business. “But now people have started asking for nolen gur ice creams.” Several Kolkata restaurants even serve nolen gur cheesecake.

Chefs such as Joymalya Banerjee have nudged nolen gur out of its complacent place among the sweets of Bengal. Some diners still recall the Prawn and Crabmeat Dumplings stewed in spicy nolen gur reduction available at his restaurant Bohemian.

Bitter truth

However, lurking within the heartening news over the use of nolen gur is some bitter truth. Usually, it is the first two to three weeks’ supply of sap that is considered valuable for the making of nolen gur, according to experts. To produce enough gur for the ever-expanding market means, you need many hundreds of date palm trees. But cultivable lands are vanishing under demographic pressure. Even though there is no concrete data available, the scarcity of good quality nolen gur is evident in the market.

Weather also plays a crucial role — the colder the winter, the better the sap. Apparently, the best nolen gur is obtained when the temperature dips to 15 degree Celsius or so. So if the winter is late or it is not cold enough, it is not possible to get nolen gur of the highest standards.

According to many gur sellers, the number of expert siulis are also dwindling. Remember, it is not easy to climb up and down a date palm tree. It is a low-paying job and young people are not interested in pursuing it. 

But what is even scarier is the fact that there are reports of use of synthetic flavours and colours. According to media reports, certain well-known institutions have said they preserve the nolen gur through various means for year-round use. But even they agreed that the taste and flavour varies. So if you are a connoisseur, enjoy Bengal’s nolen gur in its many avatars. 

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