Nolen Gur, the sweet syrupy taste of a Bengali winter Date molasses are liquid gold for cultivators with demand skyrocketing this time of the year

13, Nov 2021 | Mohammed Ripon Sheikh

Many gourmands and gourmets across the country and abroad, know that Nolen Gur, which literally translates as ‘new jaggery’ also known as date molasses in its syrup form, is a winter special. For those who collect and process the molasses it is nothing less than liquid gold, as the demand rises when the annual calendar is down to its last two pages.

Nolen molasses is made from date sap, which is also called date juice in different parts of West Bengal, especially in the southern districts. The best known the world over is the Joynagar area of South 24 Parganas.

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The onset of winter and the end of autumn is the perfect time when the traditional farmers of rural Bengal get busy collecting date juice. However, the process begins with a massive cleaning exercise. They cut off the old branches of unripe date palms. I saw scores at work along the Aka-Baka Road of the village. Although there is no ‘severe winter’ in Rampurhat subdivision of Birbhum district, many people have already started collecting date juice in anticipation of a possible shortage and high demand.

Winter is an important season for the rural people to augment their livelihood. Winter in rural life is the season to spend a lot of time with the date palms. It is this palm that will help them fulfil their dreams for the year. All day long, they put the traditional skills to work, tending to one tree at a time. It is hard work, and yet they do not mind the struggle as they know the tree is the breadwinner. If you don’t take care of their date palm, the juice will not be of good quality, and then the molasses will not be up to the mark either.

In the cold of the morning, the taste of naturally chilled date juice is quite different. In fact, for me, a swig of the cool juice in the morning makes waking up early in the winter an easy task. However cold in the morning, those of us who know the real flavour of the juice, there is no alternative to a swig of it even before breakfast. Of course, there are many health benefits too, but honestly, it is the taste that matters to us. So, we have some more, after breakfast too basking in the joyously warming sun in the backyard. The delight of drinking fresh date juice on a cold winter morning cannot be expressed in words. It has to be experienced. Elders tell us it has warming properties too, and many vitamins and minerals essential to the body to deal with the winter’s challenges.

I spoke to Dalim Sheikh, who collects date juice in an area under Paikar police station area. He says, “The juice of the date palms can be collected once the tree is six years old, and that it can last till it is almost thirty years old.” However, the older the tree, the less juice is extracted, though it is very sweet and delicious. “The highest amount of sap is available from middle-aged trees. Collecting too much sap is again very harmful for the plant,” warns Sheikh. “Our work of clearing the date palms started in September. The juice is available from the month of November. The flow of juice continues till the month of January,” he says. The quantity of juice is closely related to the temperature too, say the collectors. The colder it gets, the higher the yield of juice or sap. A single date palm tree can yield around 60-65 kg of juice per month.

Sap collectors spend most of their day going up and down, from tree to tree; literally, many barely have time to set foot on the ground. As soon as the winter comes, they tend to date palms early in the morning to keep them clean.  Date palms are also to be cut for sap collection in a special way. The specialists use a special kind of iron shovel, rope, and a bamboo pipe and climb up the tree anchored to it with a rope to the tree around his waist. The rope too is specially made for the purpose and tied well. The skill passed down generations. To an onlooker it seems that the tree itself partners with the climber, helping him do his work safely, as he uses the grooves of the trunk for stability, almost hugging the tree in what looks like a brotherly embrace when needed, and climbing it as if playing with it when needed.

The cuts are made after the stalks are cleaned. The collector very carefully cuts two folds and places a drain pipe made of bamboo under this. The sap/ juice drips down this drain into the pitcher attached to it and it fills up overnight. In the morning, even if there is thick fog, pots full of juice are taken down from each tree. At this time, many birds including Shalik and Doel flock to the tree to get their share of the juice as it drips once the pot is removed. Each cut of the tree can be tapped for two or three days before it is sealed up and a fresh cut made elsewhere. The juice collected on the first day is called Jiran or Ekkata. Jiran cut juice is the tastiest, and the best Patali or liquid molasses are made from this.

The second day’s juice collection is called Dokata, and the third day’s is called Tekata. Between each new cutting the date palm is allowed to ‘rest’ for five or six days.The cuts are allowed to heal and dry naturally. Even the date fruit are usually cut on the east and west sides to facilitate the drying process so that sunlight falls directly on the cuts. The sap or juice is collected in earthenware pots. Around eight kilograms of molasses is made from the sap collected in 15 medium sized pots. To make molasses, the juice is slowly boiled and reduced as soon as it is brought in early in the morning. Slowly it turns syrupy and eventually thickens and turns into molasses as it cools down.

Patali molasses and Jhola molasses are the two variants. This molasses is eaten in different ways and find themselves to be the star ingredients in desserts such as milk cake, payes puli cake, bean cake and many more.

However, my favourite is the pudding made with fresh date juice. Date molasses tastes the closest to a rich caramel or toffee, but has a different luxurious mouthfeel and an earthy aroma. It even tastes wonderful by itself. The fudge-like consistency of the bite of jaggery melts in the mouth ever so slowly. One taste and a flavour, and the memory remains in your mouth for the rest of your life. Many villages also celebrate the Nabanna festival or the winter cake making festival around this time. The village markets are full of date juice and molasses by then.

The people who make this date molasses are proud of their traditional identity, many of them are actually farm laborers. In many areas, landless farm laborers have no jobs after the rains. The date molasses industry, found almost all over Bengal, helps save them from starvation. Now Nolen Gur is also exported abroad. The sweet taste of home, that many Bengali expats have now made global.

This report is part of CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship Program, and has been written by researcher Ripon Sheikh, who is travelling around rural Bengal, tracking and documenting social and cultural movements of indigenous people.

Meet CJP Grassroot Fellow Mohammed Ripon Sheikh

Ripon Sheikh

This young man, who has graduated with a B.Sc degree from Burdwan University, loves trivia. Sheikh’s passion to research and seek “unknown information about World History” has earned him many medals and trophies at various University and state-level Quiz championships, and youth festivals. Sheikh is a born orator and a natural community leader. He has the potential to represent his community, state and country at a global level one day. His immediate goal, however, is to find a job so he can support his parents.

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