August 2016


The myth of the sour grapes
August 2016




The cool, green canopy strewn with bunches of plump grapes

Visiting rejuvenated Jaffna, we found their grapes sweeter than ever


Words Yomal Senerath-Yapa | Photography Menaka Aravinda and Vishwathan Tharmakulasingham


Viticulture in Jaffna has a long history, having roots deep in the dry soil of the region. N. Selvarasa, cultivator, has hands richly dyed by the purple and green of Jaffna grapes. He has been in the business for how long - he cannot remember. He recalls however that when he started out, they still measured harvest in pounds and not kilograms. As he conducted a tour of his grape plantations for us, a permanent smile would play on his face: a warm sign of welcome to our trip to the peninsula.


His grape gardens thrive in Urumpirai. We went down a small path and then, bending down at the door of the vineyard, entered a dappled green world. It was cool and fairy-like, sunlight hardly penetrating through the elfin green canopy of vine leaves. The roof of the grape garden was seven feet high: that height is maintained so that harvesters would not have a difficult job. Harvesting happens three times annually, though crop grows throughout the year. What makes Jaffna particularly qualified for grape growing, Selvarasa says, is that rainfall is low: too much rain is the worst thing for grapes.


Under the cool, green shadows of the foliage was planted the shade-loving ginger. Cacti, too, bristled up self-importantly, as if conscious of their purpose, which was to avert the evil eye.


For treating the ground, grape farmers use a mixed fertilizer, which is topped with a layer of cow dung. Using only fertilizer, Selvarasa says, will turn the grapes sour. It is cow dung that makes sure the fruit will taste sweet. Also, watering should be done every four days.


Four varieties of grape are grown here: the local variety, the Indian, and two Australian types. The more expensive Australian variety has never been experimented in local soil before. Selvarasa confided in us, however, that it looks highly promising, and, he hopes, would contribute a good harvest.


But he has adversaries and challenges, too. Birds and small mammals steal in for generous pickings, and even bunches of grapes that ripen prematurely are a problem: they have to be lopped off since they sap off too much nutrients, and draw in pests. Our visit fell a few days after harvesting, and it was clear from the look of the vineyard that they have garnered a bountiful vintage.


The harvest of the Jaffna grape farmer is mostly sold as fruit in Colombo. There was a time when Jaffna energetically churned out bottles and cans of juice and cordial, but today the produce has dwindled.


It is a pity that Jaffna grapes do not reach foreign consumers, I thought as we feasted on bunches of the bulbous, purple fruit offered to us. Contrary to what we expected, the fruit was as sweet as ever, plump and firm. The myth of the sour grapes of Jaffna seems to have been busted!


However, though Selvarasa's grapes do not make it there, a part of Jaffna's grape harvest does end up as wine. The sparkling liquor is distilled within austere religious buildings by Christian clergy, using traditional recipes.The Rosarian Sisters and the pastors of Tholagatti Mission Farm in Atchuvely produce good stuff. However, we could not witness the habited nuns and the cassock-clad fathers working in huge halls, busy fermenting or bottling, as we had fondly anticipated: outsiders are not allowed in.


Nonetheless, viticulture in this peninsula seems to flourish with ambition. It may have been Selvarasa's radiant smile, or the equally brilliant glow of swollen bunches of grapes: something told me that vineyards here have a very sweet future lying before them.

 

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    Cultivators rest in the shady vineyard

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    Adding mixed fertilizer

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    A bunch of grapes at its infancy

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    Treating the soil is of paramount importance

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    Selvarasa taking a closer look at the emerging young fruit

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    A bunch about to burst with packed juice

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