Come winter and out come the jars of jaggery, a common sight on the chequered dining tables of Indian homes.

Jaggery is a sweetener that has been used in cooking since time immemorial.

But among the many varieties, there is one that has a fan following of its own — nolen gur.

It is made from the sap of the date palm tree Phoenix sylvestris.

The beauty of the tree is that it only produces this sap as temperatures begin to dip, in the months between November to February.

Once the sap is produced by the plant, it is reduced over a fire for hours in order to achieve different consistencies of the jaggery — namely liquid, grainy and solid.

As the heat intensifies, the thick gooey substance begins to transform into a viscous liquid.

Stopping the process right before crystallisation produces the jhola gur, dense liquid syrup.

On further heating, the sap is reduced to patali, a solid deep brown product that melts as it hits the palette.

This form of jaggery is said to have the highest shelf life and is stored in terracotta pots.

Satyajit Ray’s father, Sukumar Ray declared, “Kintu shobar chaite bhalo, pauruti aar jhola gur. (The best of all is bread with jhola gur).”

But while the popularity of the timeless sweet concoction is so well known, little is known about its history.

Around the 4th century BC, Pundra Bardhan (now Bogra) in Bengal had artisans belonging to ‘lower’ castes known as Siulis who would extract the sap of the date palm tree.

This would then be sold in the weekly markets.

People came to love the quality so much that Pundra Bardhan came to be known as Gour (gur), which translates to jaggery — a natural product of sugarcane.

These nomads would scale the thorny date palm trees at night in order to tap it and cut the flower cluster at the end.

They would then hang an earthen container at the end of this branch to collect the sap.

However, they had to be wary of the temperature and the timing.

The minute the climate would turn humid, wet, or even rainy, the sap would begin to turn turbid, making it unfit to eat.

Similarly, even slight exposure to the sun’s heat would cause the sap to ferment and turn into an alcoholic form.

Through time, this community became synonymous with nolen gur.

With the Siulis having crafted a niche for themselves, Bengal began to be famous for the nolen gur and the country’s sweets were proof of the love that followed.