Our notion that only the edible can qualify as an ingredient is an effect of insufficient imagination.
Peter Fernandes was awaiting us at the big black iron gate that opened into his yard and restaurant. I stepped out of the car and stood there, absorbing the character of Pilerne – the ancient village in Bardez, home to the Fernandes family and their ancestors. Narrow but smooth winding roads separating enormous green stretches had led us to this patio diner. The weather was slightly moist but cool and breezy; abundant monsoon had left the roads clean, and washed the wilderness to reveal a vivid green canvas.
Away from the sandy coastal expanse of Goa, Pilerne is bountiful with forest cover, palm groves and fields with flowing rivulets of water during the monsoons. The village seemed to be in a lull, tucked in, lazing on Sunday afternoon, perhaps after a hearty lunch. The intermittent swoosh of coconut palms, woofs of the Fernandes’ dogs and wild melody of the birdsong were the only sounds that composed the background score of Pilerne.
A warm smile and a serving of refreshing lime soda received us. Chef Peter greeted us and darted into the house. A few seconds later he returned with two tall fermentation crocks and placed them in the yard.
I took a stroll, observing the surroundings while he scurried around, gathering necessary elements to demonstrate the making of his signature ingredient.
“First of all, no one makes vinegar in monsoons because vinegar should not get contaminated with water, it’s a very clean job. In monsoons, they use toddy to make liquor because the toddy gets mixed with rainwater and it cannot ferment,” Peter instructed, as we followed like attentive apprentices, assembled in the yard.
While the vinegar voyaged into Goa by the Portuguese was a wine vinegar, the Goans devised an alternative by preparing vinegar from toddy – the sap of coconut palm, collected from stems generous with coconut flowers and maturing fruit.
“You’re lucky because I have a batch of toddy which has not matured into vinegar yet. At first, it has a milky colour, then once it goes through fermentation and maturity, it changes colour and becomes like light tea. I’ll show you,” he announced, like a seasoned sorcerer about to showcase one of his precious potions.
The kitchen attendant placed a repurposed water bottle filled with vinegar that was now six months mature. For an exclusive speciality prepared with great caution, I was expecting fancier packaging, a glass bottle at least.
I sampled the vinegar to realise that chef Peter is always one to put great creations in humble disguise. While on one hand we have fine dines creating optical illusions to trick taste buds, chef Peter unknowingly does the same by disguising masterpieces in nonchalant packaging.
To oversimplify its taste as sour would be negligent because just before the tartness asserts its totality, a delicate but clear undertone of sweetness interrupts it. It has an overripe aroma, like a fruit that smells of a bitter suggestion but it doesn’t taste bitter at all, as if it were baked before it could ripen any more. And then, one would wonder if it would be too ironic to use the word fresh to describe something that’s been aging in a clay crock for months, but using any other word seems unfitting. Characterizing a batch of fine vinegar is somewhat like interpreting wine because this crisp, raw and sprightly blend acquires its many layers as it matures through fermentation – the harmonious collaboration of mastery, by and between nature and the alchemist.
“And the thing is, it’s very difficult to get the toddy. You see that shoot coming out?” Peter interrupted my train of thought, pointing towards a coconut palm in his yard, “that is tied tight and an earthen pot is mounted under it. Whole night the juice drips and collects.”
“It’s a hard job because every day thrice that fellow has to climb onto the coconut tree. From one tree you hardly get half a litre, sometimes a litre if you’re lucky. Entirely depends on the tree,” he paused for a moment as though to appreciate the value of both, the tapper and the tree.
Peter appeared to be unusually introverted for a restaurateur. But in the bouts of culinary conversation between the placidity, his standoffish demeanour would switch off in an instant. When he spoke of his morning trips to the fish market, the bygone days of slow earthenware cooking, of the toddy tapper and of his treasured vinegar, it was with a sense of impassioned respect for these quiet treasures.
The clay crock was awaiting us in the yard, slowly maturing the toddy that had been in there for about two months now.
“You can dip a finger and taste it, nothing will happen to it,” Peter insisted, endorsing its spoil-proof quality. It tasted milder and sweeter with a light boozy undertone. All it needed was one final spell with the secret ingredient, to metamorphose into full bodied vinegar.
From the yard, I noticed that the house had a gable roof made of clay tiles. Peter pointed towards the roof, “that tile, any tile, should be burned and dipped in this, while it’s hot, then only it will change colour.”
Confused looks were exchanged. Is it acceptable for the secret ingredient to be inedible? We followed him into the kitchen where he flamed two small chunks of clay tile. When the fired tile pieces started splattering and glowing like embers, he dropped them into the maturing toddy. This simple technique gave an amber hue to the vinegar, sterilized it and completed the process of fermentation. Smoking has been used for preservation of food since the Palaeolithic era and its use for the process of malting can be traced back to ancient Egypt. But how often do adventurous experiments like dunking chunks of smouldering tile into aging tree sap happen today? How often do we come across innovations that are not ‘inspired’ by time-seasoned methods?
Louisa joined us as we sat down to hear stories from them about their culinary descent. The relationship between Louisa and Peter as partners and as stakeholders of the kitchen manifests a sense of contentment. Five minutes of watching them crack jokes at each other’s expense were enough to understand how this kitchen is a reflection of their companionship and shared passion for what can be best described as ‘susegad’ cooking. (Susegad is a Goan lifestyle concept derived from the Portuguese word ‘sossegado’ meaning ‘quiet’. It is about living life at a slow pace, and appreciating the small joys of life.)
The heirloom recipes at Peter’s are an ode to the Goan susegad life and fermentation of toddy into vinegar is an integral part of this tradition. It is an influential character in some of the most detailed food processes like marination, pickling and preserving meats and fish. In that sense, the mise en place at Chef Peter’s Kitchen begins almost six months in advance, when the toddy is extracted from the coconut palm. And yet, vinegar finds its mention in documented recipes of Portuguese-Goan classics like vindaloo, sorpotel and balchao, only as an ingredient.
Peter’s favourite is a pickle called para. It is made with sun dried mackerels that are washed and soaked in vinegar. Masala for the pickle is also prepared with vinegar which helps preserve it for up to two years. “Just take some, put it on the frying pan and eat it. With rice and curry, it is outstanding,” he recommended.
His homestyle vinegar using the tile, is the master recipe behind most of his masalas and signature dishes. That’s probably why his rechead masala is unparalleled and has become a favourite with the 5 star chefs of Goa. It is packed with potential, can be worked into a whole range of meats and vegetables and it truly carries the dish.
To give us an uncomplicated experience of this coveted mixture, he chucked some squids into the pan, put a generous portion of his rechead masala and gave it a quick toss. The masala squid can be eaten by itself or as an accompaniment to rice and curry. Okra was in season, big and flawless with very few seeds. Slathered with the tangy masala, the batter-fried, crispy, okra strips made for a perfect early evening snack– a trace of his early childhood in Africa, I suppose.
Chef Peter’s slow processed signature vinegar inherits its tendency from the many elements that cause its transformation. It is a tribute to the abundant tree, the toiling tapper, the meticulous alchemist, the enduring crock, the generosity of time, the patience of nature and, the smoking tile. It seems as though with years of practice it has learned to represent each one of these catalysts through its inimitable complexity.
*Special thanks to Odette Mascarenhas and Joe Mascarenhas for sharing their wisdom with us and leading us to this story.
Translations and detailed descriptions are provided to give a better understanding of the story to people from different cultural backgrounds across the globe.