FENI AND TAVERNAS
The villagers of Saligão, like most Goans, were renowned for their laidback way of life. If they lacked the kind of spirited energy associated with industrial urban centres, they made up for it with a different kind of rural spirit – one that was locally brewed and revered as the quintessential drink of Goa. It was feni – a potent alcoholic brew distilled from either fermented palm juice (urrak), or fermented cashew juice (cajel).
The finest unadulterated feni had a kick like very few other alcoholic drinks in the world! Feni was poured into a shot glass and was drunk neat. As you took the initial sip, you couldn’t help but hold your breath as its volatile vapours instantly cleared your sinuses before charting a fiery path down the oesophagus into your stomach. At this point, you’d let the pent-up air out of your puffed cheeks and wipe the tears rolling down your face. Surviving this ritual was proof of Goan manhood!
Feni was not for wimps. And real men didn’t take tiny sips of it
while relaxing on their verandahs as they enjoyed a mild eveningbreeze. No sir! Real men drank at the local taverna. They would down a full ounce in one gulp, run the back of their clenched fist across their dripping nostrils, put down the glass and order another shot!
The taverna was a small, rectangular, windowless stone building with a tiled roof and a canopied entrance. It was divided into two dingy rooms with a door and a wicket between them. The owner of the taverna sat behind the wicket in front of a shelf stocked with unlabelled bottles of feni. Customers were served through the wicket, and they downed their drink standing. This is because there wasn’t enough room for a chair, and because patrons preferred to have their drink on the run as they made their way home from a hard day’s work in the paddy fields.
The canopied entrance comprised two stone benches flanking the front door. But the seats were never taken because our boozers preferred to be discreet and maintain a modicum of social decorum.
The downside of feni was twofold. Firstly, it lingered on one’s breath, and there was no way of disguising it. Secondly, it provided just enough fuel to get a drinker home before it became the source of major domestic problems.
Today, I look back a t feni and the taverna as chips in the mosaic of Goa’s society; dispensable on its own, but integral to the whole picture that makes Goa such a dominant destination of my journey into nostalgia.
As devout Catholics, villagers believed that their lives were governed by a divine spirit … and no Goan would dispute it. But I also believe that a more earthly spirit – feni – played an equally prominent role in rural Goa’s unique way of life.