We live in Cashew country. All around us, cashew orchards. Stretching far until the highways cut them off.
We should have been delighted, but the delight of living near commercial farming areas is invariably fraught with anxiety. We knew about endosulphan use, the genetic havoc wreaked by entirely discriminate pesticide use in places like Kerala. The stuff is Other Aurovillians told us to simply stay away in February, when the spraying happens. “You can smell it in the air,” they said, as though that was a good thing: at least we would know when the poison was there.
Our cashews, when they come, are fruits of this environment: of the red laterite soil, of the struggle between conventional and organic farming approaches over sustainability and ethics and profitability and livelihoods, all forced to co-exist, side-by-tight-side. In the meantime, the cashew trees stretch their low canopies, and wait.
Cashew apples arrive in March, and into April when, they say, the effect of pesticide spraying has no-doubt worn off.
It’s hard not to gawk at the red and yellow apples that abound, though it’s the kernel in the extraneous seed that everyone’s really after. It’s hard not to be charmed by their intoxicating and inimitable scent. Our boys eat the first ripe fruit all up with little complaint, but their rich tannin content puts a quick end to any gluttony.
The nuts of this pseudo-fruit are harder still to tackle. Acidic enough to burn, their outer casing has to be roasted almost to cinders and then cracked open. Younger, softer kernels make masala spice pastes perfect for simmering meats. The crisper nuts disappear before we can even contemplate baking with them. But cashew apples abound, excesses with no easy use.
Never fond of the sensation fruit tannins produce inside my mouth, I’d always satisfied myself with the cashew apple fragrances until, this summer, a call from a dancer friend, Rekha: “Cashew apples everywhere,” she said, “what do I do with them?”
Knowing that anything from Rekha’s garden was unlikely to have been directly sprayed, I lost no time. Cashew apples are extraordinarily perishable and even just ripening fruit spoils in hours. We plotted, and by the next morning, I had a whole tray delivered to me, ripe with expectation.
Straight juicing wasn’t an option, given that the tannins required some treatment. In cashew growing regions of the South, a bit of kanji (or congee), a sort of rice gruel, gets added to fresh juice–allowed to rest a little while the starch in the kanji draws the tannins into itself–then the liquid on top poured off to be consumed.
Not having kanji on hand, we went a different route. We chopped and cooked the fruit in batches, straining out the pulp and extracting juice from the cooked fruit instead. It was something of a tedious process (I had lots of help from the ever-patient Chitra.) While I know that cooking isn’t necessarily a way to reduce the acrid taste of tannins (heat doesn’t do much for tannins in tea), I hoped that the removal of the pulp might have some effect.
It did. The juice returned to the pot, boiled this time with sugar and a few black peppercorns, and reduced slightly. Then cooled, bottled–and shared.
Rekha called almost immediately after. They’d had the concentrate over ice with a starfruit slice and a dash or three of vodka, topped with soda. We’d stuck with just ice and soda. The scent of the cashew had lingered. It was not just delicious, it was memorable in the way the best fragrances always are.
The next batch was bigger, and I realized I needed industrial equipment to process the volumes fast enough. And because we had more bottles of the concentrate, they got to sit around longer–for me to play with fermentation, which continues even after the fruit are cooked. We didn’t get as far as Kerala cashew apple toddy or Goan feni, but our plastic bottles were tight when we opened them, a week later. And the layers of scent and taste still marvelous–fermented just enough to be “probiotic” (kind of) but not alcoholic. At least I can say that neither of my boys was tipsy after a few glasses worth.
“We should do more with this,” Rekha suggested. But me, my plate already too full and my cups always overflowing, I hesitated. I oughtn’t have. Here’s Pepsi now searching for new super juices, possibly also new ways to twist water.
I’m no competition for Pepsi, but if the experience of having tetra-packed coconut water is a measure of anything, by the time Pepsi delivers its pretty packages to your tables, what started out as delightfully scented ripening cashew apples will likely have been deconstructed and pasteurized, reconstructed and homogenized, stripped of geo-tags and scents but possibly re-scented artificially, and mixed in with other “flavors” to capture the essence which is really just no longer there. Who knows what it will really taste like any more? (Tetra-packed coconut water is truly horrid stuff. Trust me and don’t even try it).
Not sure about you, but I’m not really waiting to find out what Pepsi’s secret kitchens (er, labs?) produce.
Next year, I’m buying me some big-old pans and building a cooking fire outdoors, hiring a woman–who will likely need the extra income–and making my own fizzies. No guarantees except hygiene and love, taste and care.
My kitchen is both open, and open source. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by for a taste and a whiff before the summer sets in, and the cashew trees enter their annual summer stasis.