Christmas in Kerala, that sunny tropical strip of southern India along the Arabian Sea, is a somber festival with more faith and religious fervor than mere celebrations. It is observed as a religious holiday and Kerala Christians all add the flavor of their native culture, be it in the music or food or spirits.
Churches are decorated with candles and flowers, and service is held at midnight on Christmas Eve. Traditionally, Christian families of all denominations, often dressed in formal clothes, go to church for the midnight mass. Christmas Day is celebrated with feasting and socializing with family and friends.
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Rituals vary by region so the menu for the Christmas feast differs by village and household. Even though the feast often includes roast duck and mincemeat dishes, palappam, which is made with rice and coconut and served with meat or chicken stew, is also popular. Sweets such as rose cookies and diamond cuts are usually homemade like cookies in Western countries.
Christmas dinner, especially among Kerala Catholics, is not complete without a glass of homemade sweet grape wine and a piece of plum cake — a moist, brown cake with plenty of nuts, dried fruits and fragrant spices.
In old times the ritual of making wine at home would begin in October. Though tropical Kerala does not have the ideal weather for winemaking, it is a longstanding tradition for Christmas. These days, many depend on store-bought wines and Christmas cakes, but a few still make wine at home.
These wines are very sweet, and most often spiced, and belong to the dessert wine category. Traditionally, wine is made in a pale brown ceramic jar called cheena bharani or simply bharani, which is a remnant of the ancient Indian Ocean trade with China.
The recipe for sweet grape wine is a typical wine recipe, but the fermentation is much briefer. The process is stopped before all the sugar turns into alcohol. The recipe also uses equal amounts of grapes and sugar, resulting is a very sweet wine.
Grapes aren’t grown in Kerala, but winemakers can get Bangalore Blue, Anab-e-Shahi, Gulabi and Bhokri variety grapes from neighboring regions in India. The variety isn’t particularly important, however, as any dark red grape will do.
The red color of this wine is from the red pigment in the grape skin. Grapes give the flavor, sugar adds sweetness, yeast is for fermentation and spices impart aroma. The strength of the wine depends on the amount of wheat or barley used, which also acts as a clarifying agent. Egg white is used to make the wine clear.
It is essential to begin with a sanitary environment and absolutely clean equipment before starting the process of making wine. Used bottles, in particular, should be sterilized before they are used again.
Homemade Kerala Christmas Wine
Makes 16 cups
2¼ pounds sweet dark grapes, washed and stalks removed and wiped dry
1 teaspoon dry yeast
2¼ pounds sugar
18 cups water, boiled and cooled to room temperature
¼ cup wheat kernels
1-inch cinnamon stick, crushed
1 egg white
1. Clean and dry a glass or ceramic jar.
2. Crush the grapes thoroughly and place them in the jar.
3. Dissolve yeast in 2 tablespoons of lukewarm water and set aside for 10 to15 minutes. Then add the proofed yeast, sugar, water, wheat and spices to the crushed grapes. Stir well, until the sugar is completely dissolved.
4. The contents should fill only ¾ of the jar. During fermentation carbon dioxide is formed and released. It is ideal to cover the jar with a piece of clean cheese cloth and tie with a piece of kitchen twine. Keep it in cool dark place to ferment.
5. For the next two to three weeks open the jar once a day and stir the contents well using a clean dry wooden spoon. Initially the crushed grapes would be floating in the liquid, but after a couple of weeks these will begin to settle at the bottom of the jar.
By the end of the third week, the mixture would stop foaming. Depending on the weather conditions, it may take more or less days for the fermentation process to stop.
6. When the fermentation stops, strain the liquid through a clean cheese cloth into another clean jar and discard sediments. Keep the wine in a glass container for two or three days, closed and undisturbed for the finer sediments to settle down. Drain the clear wine to another bottle and discard the remaining sediments.
7. Mix the egg white into the wine and leave it in the container. Keep the container closed for a few more days. The wine will become clear. Drain the wine once more to remove any remaining sediments.
8. Bottle in dark bottles and store in a cool, dark place.
Top photo: Christmas wine and Christmas cake in Kerala, India. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran