If you travel in Mumbai’s (in)famous local trains, it’s hard to escape the small batches of chikoos sold for Rs 10 or Rs 20. Unbeknownst to most, these chikoos generally come from Dahanu, about 120 kilometres off Mumbai. But what exactly are chikoos and why is there a festival around it every year?
THE CHIKOO STORY
No, Virat Kohli had nothing to it. His tag most likely came from teammates, with Yuvraj Singh being the most likely culprit, for nicknaming him Chikoo for his chubby cheeks that he had before he turned into the epitome of fitness for Indian sportsmen.
Chikoos are native to Central America and are called Sapota in the region. They most likely came by way of Portuguese traders and found firm footing in the lush green fields of Dahanu. As second-generation farmer Shahrukh Irani says, “Most of my chikoo tress came from China and have been here for the past 129 years. They are still standing and I am sure they’ll be standing 50 years from now as well.”
Indeed, the entire area has a surplus of chikoo farms compared to any other part of Maharashtra. For this reason, the state government has proposed to retain the green cover of the region and construction activities are heavily monitored, if at all. Farmers say they are also not allowed to sell their farms, even if they don’t earn enough from it.
While older farmers still look for ways to maximise their crops, the younger generation, impatient as always, wants to move out and look for better opportunities. Which is how the farmers came up with the idea of organizing a Chikoo Festival and popularising their star fruit.
THE CHIKOO FESTIVAL
In 2013, local farmers along with the MTDC organized the first chikoo festival in an effort to promote tourism to the region. There were hiccups and internal fractions came to the fore soon thereafter. Prabhakar Save, who organised the first festival and is still its chief coordinator, says that people in the region didn’t consider him a local although he had stayed in the region for decades. Local politicians swooped down to take credit for the festival without doing much for it. “Some youngsters approached me later to continue the festival and looking at their enthusiasm we decided to continue the festival,” Save says.
In 2018, the festival was held at the S R Save Camping Ground at Bordi Beach in Dahanu. It was the biggest-ever turnout the festival has seen in its half-decade plus existence. “I’ve paid local artists such as basket weavers money to come and sell their wares in the past. This time, they’ve voluntarily bought stalls at the festival because of the income they’ve generated in the last couple of years during the festival,” Save says proudly.
Indeed, while chikoo provides the amplification, it is local artisans and their crafts that are show-stealers at the camping grounds where the festival was held over the Republic Day weekend this year. Warli painting and sculptures, local dishes in vegetarian and non-vegetarian options, workshops with different themes, sand castles, play area and a stage for speeches and performances kept audiences engaged over the duration of the festival. Save estimates the footfall at the event to touch close to a lakh this year with people from Mumbai, Surat, Thane and Nasik attending the festival.
THE CHIKOO FARM EXPERIENCE
While the camping grounds had enough excitement to keep engaged for a few hours, it was the visit to a chikoo farm that actually opened people’s minds about the fruit. Shahrukh Irani, who owns almost 50 acres of farms and is a veteran hand at chikoos, took us around his farm and explained why chikoos from the region were special. “The same chikoo tree gives three different sizes of fruits throughout the year, something that you don’t see happening everywhere,” he says with a hint of pride in his voice.
According to Irani, chikoos grow in Dahanu in the summer, rainy and inter-season. The summer chikoos are the biggest and the best ones, according to him. The rainy season chikoos are smaller and the mid-season chikoos are medium-sized. As Irani was explaining, two women were washing freshly-plucked chikoos to remove the sap. “The sap is actually used to make bubble gum,” Irani adds.
As eager as Irani was to show us his chikoo farm, he was also insistent on how climate change has made the entire season cycle unpredictable. His workers can’t gauge when to add natural fertilisers to his organic farm to help the trees flower and give chikoo fruits in a time-bound manner. “We are very confused about this,” he says.
Irani estimates that he loses about 70 tonnes of chikoos to heavy rainfall that has become a part of South West monsoon recently. “The chikoos turn black and hard as stone,” he says, sounding incredulous. Irani says that he has been able to sustain himself because he inherited a farm. For newcomers, it’s almost impossible to sustain because of all the problems climate change is causing.
FRUZZANTE – THE WORLD’S ONLY CHIKOO WINE
Our final stop was to Fruzzante, the world’s first chikoo winery. The winery works according to order even though the winery was shut when we visited. Ajit Balgi, who is promoting Fruzzante, led our tour where the entire distillation, brewing and bottling methods were shown by a staff member. At the end of the tour, there was a wine tasting with chikoo wine that lifted spirits and capped the end of a fabulous day filled with chikoos.
The objective of taking chikoos and turning it into a festival for celebrating local heritage and promoting tourism in the region is laudable. With the introduction of chikoo farm tours as well as a winery tour, the organisers are giving visitors every chance to enjoy a festival that has the potential to break out into a major event soon. We recommend you visit the Chikoo Festival next year to fully appreciate this under-represented fruit.
Inside images: Priyanko Sarkar. Cover image: Sohail Joshi. Chikoo wine image from Fruzzante
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