In October, Hilda Mascarenhas, who writes a popular food blog in Pune, India, began her Christmas preparations with an unusual request to her fruit seller.
After buying a pineapple, she asked the vendor to separately pack the peel and eyes that he had skillfully removed with his long knife.
Hilda’s husband, Merwyn, though accustomed to his wife’s culinary experiments, was as mystified as the fruit seller. What did the thick, thorny peel and tongue-lacerating eyes, normally discarded as waste, have to do with Christmas?
He found out a month later when presented with a delicious little glass of golden pineapple wine.
Across India, several Christian communities, including the Goans, Mangloreans, Anglo-Indians and East Indians, prepare sweet homemade wines for the festive season from a rich array of local fruit, roots and grain. Grape, raisin and ginger wine are the staples, but many households also make wine from beetroot, tomato, cashew, gooseberry, jackfruit, jambhul, watermelon, bananas, mango, mulberries and rice.
The wine is served along with rich plum cake and traditional sweets like kulkuls and neuries to relatives and friends who drop by on Christmas visits. It is also served to guests at many Christian wedding receptions — post-Christmas is wedding season — when the toast to the bridal couple is raised.
New York chef Floyd Cardoz, who grew up in Bandra — a once-quiet Mumbai suburb now home to some of the country’s best restaurants — has fond memories of Christmas wine.
“My great-aunt used to make a bunch of wines — grapes for sure, but oranges and pineapple too,” he told the Salt. “It was served in these very tiny plastic glasses. At the time, unlike today, wine wasn’t easily available in India, so the only wine you got was the homemade stuff — necessity really is the mother of invention.”
Though winemaking is an ancient Indian tradition, Christmas winemaking is a colonial legacy of the British and the Portuguese, who ruled the tiny coastal state of Goa for 500 years. Indian Christians, who form 2.3 percent of the country’s population, have adapted the traditional recipes, using fruit like papaya and cashew “apples,” and adding chilies and spices to make a wine that appeals to the Indian palate.
For instance, Bridget Kumar White, a food writer in Bangalore who is an authority on colonial-era Anglo-Indian cooking, adds a dried red chili to her mulled ginger wine. “Ginger wine is not a wine so much as a cordial,” she says. “It works as a good digestive after that heavy Christmas lunch of pork curry or chicken curry.” The chilies, along with a dash of cinnamon, give the wine a pleasant kick.
A few years ago, Mangalorean food blogger Shireen Sequeira was leafing through her mother’s handwritten book of recipes when she came upon one for rice wine. “I was fascinated,” she says, “but when I googled rice wine, the only recipes I came across were for Japanese sake, which uses a brewing rather than a fermenting process. So I just went by my mum’s very general instructions. I used basmati rice and added sugar, yeast, raisins, limes and brandy. I was very pleased with the result. The wine turned out a pale gold and tasted like toddy [fermented palm sap].”
Though many households still make Christmas wine, the number seems to be dwindling with each passing year. Many worry that over time, the nuances and closely guarded secrets of making tropical fruit wines will be lost.
It’s just as well, then, that an invaluable book by Edwin Saldanha called Successful Goan Home Wines, was published in 1995. It contains 59 recipes, including those for wines made from tea leaves, rhubarb, rose petals, kokum and condensed milk. Saldanha, a retired schoolteacher who has since died, liked to joke that he could even turn old shoe soles into wine.
That his book — now in its fifth edition — exists is largely due to the good offices of his microbiologist friend Dr. Nandkumar Kamat, who is passionate about the science of winemaking and who teaches an enology course in the botany department at Goa University, where they have developed a wine-making yeast by isolating and screening wild yeasts found in local fruit.
“Once, when I visited Eddie’s house at Christmas, I was offered homemade ginger and chickoo wines and became curious about his hobby,” Kamat told the Salt. “However, he was reluctant to part with his recipes. It took me more than two years to persuade him to compile his profound knowledge into a book. I kept telling him, ‘How long will you hold back, and what will happen when age catches up with you and you begin to forget the art and science of making wines?’ I managed to finally win his trust, when he saw I had no personal interest except to see his book published and his art appreciated in India.”
Fruit wines have a low alcohol content and a smooth, sweet, mellow palate. “Sweetness depends on personal tastes,” says Mascarenhas. “Abroad, in the West, they like dry wines, but in India we love sweet wines.”
Made by fermenting the fruit pulp or peel with yeast, sugar, water and in some cases, spices like nutmeg, the process — though fairly straightforward — is not without its hazards.
Mascarenhas and Sequeira provide some helpful tips for aspiring winemakers: It’s vital to use a clean and dry jar (glass, stone or ceramic) without any lingering tastes or smells. The jar should be covered with a piece of muslin or cheesecloth whose porosity allows gasses to escape but keeps the fruit flies away.
“If the fruit flies get at it, your wine will turn into vinegar,” says Mascarenhas.
During the two- to three-week fermentation period, the jar should be stored undisturbed in a warm, dark, dry place. Excessive humidity is the bane of wine and can cause fungus.
“For heaven’s sake, don’t keep the jar near the kitchen sink,” warns Sequeira.
One of the pleasures of winemaking is watching the fermentation, which is possible only if you’re using a glass jar. “As the yeast eats into the sugar, a lot of dancing goes on,” says Mascarenhas. “You can watch the bubbling and fizzing. For beetroot, which is a root, the fizzing is mild, like a carbonated drink poured into glass, whereas a rich fruit like pineapple releases more complex gases, causing bigger bubbles to form.”
Above all, patience is the key. “When I made the first batch of pineapple wine, I was so excited — we are human, after all — that I decanted the wine from my ceramic jar into pretty crystal bottles after the first 10 days, when I thought the fermentation was over,” Mascarenhas ruefully relates. “It was a big mistake. The glass stoppers flew out like pressure-cooker weights. Luckily, my showcase [curio] wasn’t in their flight path.”
The wine has to be strained several times to filter out the sediment, which otherwise makes it muddy. Clarifying agents include porous pieces of clay, a handful of wheat (which is sticky and acts as a sponge), or a lightly beaten egg white, which attracts impurities “like chewing gum,” says Mascarenhas.
By the end of the fermentation, the sediment settles at the bottom, allowing for a luminous clarity on top that resembles a stained-glass window. “The jewel-like gold and ruby-red colors are so Christmas-y, full of warmth and love,” says Mascarenhas. “It’s a perfect symbol of festivity over which to wish everyone a happy Christmas.”
Nina Martyris is a journalist based in in Knoxville, Tenn. She reported this story from Pune, India.