Ata-Baba hazelnut is an ancient hazelnut cultivar of Azerbaijan. Meaning “passed on from father to son” in local dialect, this peculiar variety is diffuse in the northern part of the country, on the southern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, between the districts of Gabala and Gakh. The area presents a rich biodiversity, not only from an agricultural point of view, but also culturally speaking, due to the presence of several minorities, such as Udis, Turks, Lezgins and Georgians. Foothills mild climates, together with the presence of water reserves, have contributed to the development of hazelnuts cultivation, which represents an important source of income for Azerbaijani rural populations since ever. In this territory, every small-scale farmer has even only a couple of hazelnut plants, demonstrating the strong link with the local culture. Ata-Baba hazelnuts are recognized by the traditional knowledge to be used as a curative food: together with honey, they have been consumed as a treatment for anemia and exhaustion, therefore given in particular to nursing mothers.
Ata-Baba variety is light brown colored and has a perfect round shape with a hard shell. The weight is approximately 2.5 grams, with an oil content reaching 68%, conferring a very sweet and oily taste. The hazelnuts plants can grow high till four meters wild in the bush, but in orchards they are kept around 2.5 meters to facilitate the harvest. The fruits sprout into a husk that is twice the length of the nut, usually in a group of 3-6 nuts. The planting system is traditionally in a framework with good distances to a plant from another, in order to make them grow properly. Cultivation care in the first years is very simple, consisting primarily in keeping the area under the trees clean and guarantee the distribution of fallen leaves in the soil to enrich the organic matter during the dormancy period. Every two- or three-years during winter dormancy some pruning is carried out to guarantee an adequate ventilation of the foliage avoiding the onset of thickening of humidity. Thanks to the pruning, suckers are available for new planting, while the remaining wood is used both for heating and realization of wooden objects.
The haselnuts are ripe and start falling to the ground at the end of August but harvest begins in late September: traditionally the trees are gently shook manually, allowing the fruits to fall. Some producers use nets to collect them, while others pick the fruits directly from the ground. Once harvested the hazelnuts are cleaned up and left to dry in the shade for about 15 days. Then the good fruits are separated by the deformed or the excessively small ones. Because of their durable shell, hazelnuts store well and were once an essential source of food during the winter. Moreover, the shells are usually used as fuel instead of firewood.
Ata-Baba hazelnut is commonly consumed as a dried snack. They are a particularly important ingredient for the preparation of sweets for the Novruz, the spring holiday that welcomes the new nature cycle. In this occasion, sweets like pakhlava (a dessert made with phyllo pastry, honey and dried fruits) and shekerbura (baked bagels filled with ground hazelnuts, mixed with sugar and eggs) are indeed produced in big quantities.