Conversation with Halima Mirzakhanova – keeper of Marsan tomato

Marsan is a small, seemingly unremarkable village near the small town of Gakh, surrounded by the mountains of the South Caucasus. However, in this small village lives one interesting woman, Halima Mirzakhanova. She is 64 years old. On the one hand, she does not differ from many women of this age in the numerous villages of Azerbaijan. She is very friendly, her smile never leaves her face, which radiates joy. However, this woman has managed to do what scientists, ecologists, and geneticists have failed to do – to preserve a unique variety of tomato, the Marsan one.

She got the seeds of this variety from her mother, who in turn got them from her grandmother.

We went to meet Halima Mirzakhanova.

When we arrived in the village of Marsan, we found this woman’s house, where she lives with her husband. The woman had just thawed a “tandyr” (a national oven consisting of a cylindrical clay vessel with an open top buried in the ground) and invited us to wait for freshly baked lavash. We explained the purpose of our mission and our interest in this rescued tomato variety. Halima Khanum was surprised – after all, it was just an ordinary tomato.

When did your interest in tomato farming begin?

After I got married, I started growing tomatoes for my family. I have been doing this work individually for many years. It’s very important for me to grow this variety…it’s a philosophy, not only a job! It is necessary to explain that since 1990th Azerbaijan which in the past supplied tomatoes to the whole Soviet Union has been flooded with a wave of imported tomato varieties. Never mind that the tomatoes didn’t have a refined taste, the main criteria were beautiful appearance and transportability, so prized in the market. But my family had very different values. Life success in this family was not about profit, but about education and health. My family did everything to ensure that all three sons received higher education, but what is an education without health? And what kind of health can genetically modified foods provide? So I continued to plant the seeds of my great-grandmother’s tomatoes and invited the neighbors to follow the example.

Many neighbors were indignant, right?

Yes, the asked me why I spent so much effort growing these tomatoes. But, for me, they have a special taste. As time went on, there came a point when people realized that no flavor of the new-fangled varieties could compare to Aunt Halima’s tomatoes! I do not use any fertilizer except cattle manure. I do not use chemicals on the farm, even if there is an accidental illness.

Do you produce anything from this tomato you plant?

I make tomato juice and even tomato paste to use in kitchen. We also have the tradition to make pickled tomatoes in jars with peppers and other vegetables from the garden.

Do you grow anything other than tomatoes on your farm?

In addition to tomatoes, we grow corn, peppers, eggplants, potatoes, everything I can grow in agriculture within the amount that we can use at home and to treat extended family and guests, who we always welcome in our house.

Do you also prepare and grow products such as cheese and hazelnuts, or do they require extra time from you?

I used to make cheese when we kept cattle. We don’t keep big horned animals because we are old.

Do you think the COVCHEG project will help you to preserve this seed? How much do you see the benefits of a Presidium for the protection of this farm, this type of tomato?

I think it will. This is the kind of seed we inherited from our ancestors. Through this project, it would be good if Marsan tomatoes are preserved for future generations. I think also that this kind of projects are useful meetings and negotiations that take place during these projects motivates us in this area.

I understand that this is the first project you have joined, but have you seen any push since joining this project?

Of course. During the project, we were encouraged to meet with people from other farms, to exchange views, to negotiate to improve and expand the farm, and even to protect the product.

Today, Halima khanum is proud that during her century she managed not only to preserve this endangered tomato variety, but also to create preconditions for a tasty brand for her small, unknown village.

She handed us a handful of seeds and said: “We live in this ancient land and we must cherish all that it gives us and what we have inherited from our ancestors. Each fruit, to survive to our days, has undergone a struggle with climatic changes, with parasites, diseases, and it develops immunity, which is transmitted to us Azerbaijanis, who have lived on this land since ancient times. This variety came out the winner in this struggle, it conquered disease, cold, hunger. We walked into her cozy, clean house and tasted the sweet tomato, thinking silently about the unknown heroism of this simple woman.

Slow Food, with the financial support of the European Union, and in partnership with the Azerbaijan Tourism Board, is developing a three-year project ‘Community-based Value Chain Enhancement in the Greater Caucasus Mountains area’ to contribute to a balanced development of rural areas and a sustainable food system in the pilot regions of Azerbaijan by promoting local and regional food chains and Slow Food Travel models. The international partnership has various tools and methodologies to achieve this goal, and the project intends to involve the widest possible audience and stakeholders in its implementation.