In an interview to Contemporary Authors in 1982, writer Salman Rushdie talks about a pickle factory in Mumbai. “…in Bombay, when I was a child, there was a very good pickle factory called Ferns Pickles. And on all the labels of the Ferns Pickles you would see a little rubric along the bottom which said, ‘Made from the original recipes of Mrs N Fernandes.’ And Mrs Fernandes became a kind of myth figure to me. I imagined this little old lady sitting in a corner making these wonderful pickles and sending recipes to the factory and getting rich and famous.”
The story of Mrs N Fernandes, as imagined by Rushdie, inspired the Braganza pickle factory and the character of its owner Mary Pereira, in his 1981 novel Midnight’s Children. “I suppose what happens to Mary Pereira in the book is an expression of that fantasy of mine,” he said. Rushdie’s imagined story wasn’t too far from the truth.
Nataline Fernandes, the woman responsible for the jams, pickles and wet curry pastes of Ferns Pickles, moved from Goa to Pune in 1920 with her husband Benjamin. In 1920, Kirkee near Pune was the base for a British military installation, and the site of munitions factories and military hospitals. A pharmacist, Benjamin set up a store in their new family house in Kirkee (now known as Khadki). By 1937, he realised the store wasn’t getting any customers, and pulled the shutters down permanently.
But the closing of the store marked the beginning of a new fortune: Nataline’s skill at making preserves and pickles would feed her family for generations to come. British soldiers and families who lived in the area soon fell in love with her brinjal and lime pickles, lemon squashes and mango jelly, and Ferns Pickles came into existence as a brand.
“My grandmother, started making preserves on a larger scale to support the family,” said Brian Fernandes, Nataline’s grandson and the chairman and managing director of Ferns Pickles. “They had four children, my father was the youngest.” Nataline’s jams, jellies, pickles and squashes, which she laboured over in her kitchen in Pune, were collected by a distributor who sold them all through Pune, and soon, in nearby Mumbai.
In 1947, when Nataline’s British customers were finally heading back to their homes, among the many things they would miss were Ferns Pickles. Nataline, never one to disappoint a customer, found a Mumbai-based merchant-exporter three years later, who agreed to carry her her pickles and pastes to the UK and eventually, Australia.
“My grandmother started innovating and came out with the concept of ‘wet masalas’ which were bottled and sold, at a time when people were still using dry powders for cooking,” Brian said. “It was my father [George Fernandes] who came up with the name ‘curry paste’ and the brand name ‘Ferns’ a little later.”
In 1960, Brian’s father, George, left the Navy and took over his mother’s business. “They were doing truck loads, as the concept of containers had not reached India,” said Brian. “The brand had spread through India thanks to Military Stores all over the country. He also expanded sales to New Zealand and Canada.”
Nataline died in 1966, leaving George in charge of Ferns. Her curry paste proved to be nothing short of a revolution. When George took over Ferns, he eliminated jams and squashes, focusing entirely on expanding the range of curry pastes. (Some of the curry pastes offered by the brand today, include Hot Curry Paste, Korma Paste and Madras Curry Paste.)
Of Nataline’s four children, it was George who inherited his mother’s gift of cooking. Brian remembers Christmas days spent eating jellies and marshmallows which his father made from scratch. “Most of the recipes that we use today [at Ferns] are my grandmothers,” said Brian. “They are written in a book that has been handed down from my grandmother to my father and then to me. Some of the recipes are of my father’s innovation and a few are mine. So each generation has added to the book of recipes.”
Though only a few of Ferns’ original suppliers remain, they pride themselves on the freshness of their ingredients, like the chillies and brinjals, which are procured from farms around the factory. According to Brian, they still remain a small company with 95% of the production focused on catering to international markets.
After his father’s death in 1995, Brian, then only 17, took over Ferns. “We scaled down operations a bit, as the company was too big for me to manage properly, but we managed to get through the hard times,” said Brian. “As we started expanding again, the original house had limited scope for expansion and so we built a new factory outside Pune, in Shirwal, where we moved in August 2012. The factory is a lot bigger and conforms to modern food standards and has a fully automated bottling line and cooking vessels so as to ensure hygiene and consistency.”
In India, one can find Ferns Pickles on the website PlaceOfOrigin.in, an online bazaar which caters to city-specific brand nostalgia, for customers who have moved away from their family homes and places of origin. “Based on our customer recommendations, we reached out to Ferns and relaunched it in India exclusively on the website,” said Ashish Nichani, co-founder at PlaceOfOrigin. “Ferns had moved out of the Indian market and focused only on its foreign clientele.” On the website, a 300gm jar of Ferns pickles and pastes is priced between Rs 120 and Rs 140.
“We try to discover authentic flavours and iconic tastes from every part of the country and also reminisce about foods from our community or past,” said Nichani, explaining why reviving brands like Ferns in India makes good business sense – the brand will always have a loyal fan base, but also has a great chance of finding new, younger fans. “Whenever someone travels to any place, they always return with the local delicacies of that area. We learned that most specialty food businesses were small family-run traditional enterprises not interested in franchising, since they were keen to maintain quality. Since they were not finding any avenue of growth, a lot of them were losing out in the battle with mass-produced FMCG products. Without a drastic intervention, vital parts of our culinary heritage would no longer be sustainable.”