Ata-Baba Hazelnut, Madrasa Grape and Wild Caucasian Rosehip are the first three Slow Food Presidia in Azerbaijan

Since 2018, the ‘Community-based Value Chain Enhancement in the Greater Caucasus Mountains area’ (COVCHEG) project has mapped 40 local varieties of vegetables, fruits, traditional home-made sweets, animal breeds, wild plants and other specialties linked to the villages and climatic zones of the Greater Caucasus Mountains of Azerbaijan. 28 among them are already onboard the Ark of Taste, which, all over the world, selects and catalogs quality food products at risk of extinction.

Today this project has reached a fundamental milestone, the creation of the first three Slow Food Presidia in Azerbaijan.

Slow Food Presidia directly support farms and involves the creation of farming communities that protect biodiversity and preserve traditional food production techniques. This helps farmers to be less isolated, overcome difficulties together and gain access to the market without using third parties. All products protected by the Presidia are linked with the history and culture of a particular area. The farmers receive training through meetings with experts and international exchanges of experience.

What are the first three Azerbaijani products worthy of becoming Slow Food Presidia? See below:

Wild Caucasian Rosehip

Rosehip is a perennial bush plants belonging to the genus Rosa in the Rosaceae family, which grows spontaneously in the alluvial plain of the Girdimanchay river and in the riparian forests of the district of Ismayilli, in the north-eastern part of the country.

The cultural and gastronomic link with these species depends on the great capacity and attention of the rural populations who have been able to grasp the peculiarities of the rosehip (also called dogrose) both for the fruit consumption and for the other parts of the plant, especially the flowers. 

The plants are located in state-owned forests and there is no title of ownership. The harvesters do not use invasive techniques because they know that it is a fundamental source of sustenance for the benefit of the entire community: they must respect the health of the plants and the preservation of the mountain and forest landscape. Traditionally, women process the Caucasian wild rosehips in syrup, compote and jam. “Nowadays, due to depopulation of the mountain areas and lack of youth, the knowledge connected with this wild species is at high risk of disappearing”, Sahar Aghayeva, the coordinator of the Rosihip Presidium with majority of women-producers says: “It is a gift of nature that grows wildly and due to its lack of promotion majority of people has forgotten it. We believe that with the help of Slow Food we can promote and restore its potential”.

Azerbaijan Hazelnut

The Ata-Baba hazelnut is an ancient hazelnut cultivar of Azerbajian. The southern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, between the districts of Gabala and Gakh, where it grows, 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.

The Ata-Baba hazelnut is commonly consumed as a dried snack. They are also a particularly important ingredient for the preparation of sweets for the Novruz, the spring holiday that welcomes the new nature cycle, like baklava (a dessert made with phyllo pastry, honey and dried fruits) and shaker bura (baked bagels filled with ground hazelnuts, mixed with sugar and eggs).

As Azerbaijan began to consolidate as one of the most important producing countries in the world, local varieties began to lose commercial importance, except for a very local basis, often not adequately remunerated. Small-scale producers have thus lost part of their sovereignty on the autochthonous production and end up delivering the product to local traders who create mass production for the processing industry and export. The Presidium aims at supporting small-scales producers who are still cultivated the ancient variety, helping their product to get the remuneration they deserve.

“We believe in the potential of our hazelnut but big industries have swept away small hazelnut businesses. If we can gather and form a cooperative we can restore hazelnut farmers business” argues Sebuhi Nebiyev, producers of Ata-Baba hazelnut.

Madrasa grape

It is a local red grape variety named after the village of Mədrəsə in the Shamakhi region of Azerbaijan, historically known as Shirvan region, a mountainous area, with the highest peak, Babadag, that rises to 3,629 meters. The landscape varies deeply, from steppe to foothill meadows and forests, such as the climate, highly influenced by the territory mountainous geography and close location to the Caspian Sea. Consequently, these Azerbaijani wine regions can face different type of weather, from dry, to very cool to wet and therefore, the varieties that grow here must be very rustic and robust. From Madrasa are produced richly coloured red wines, but also citrusy rosés, with a good level of tannins. The aroma is rich in fruits flavors, such as raspberry and wild berries, with a long finish.

In the 1870s-80s, there were 50 thousand hectares planted with Madrasa vines, but the total cultivated area has decreased significantly over the past century. Slow Food wants to support who have returned to this cultivation, or never left, working alongside the wine-makers to operate a reposition of the Madrasa wine in the market. Indeed, currently, small-scale producers are forced to sell the grapes to big industrial companies, which poorly pay the raw material.  To achieve the objective, producers have decided to promote sustainable techniques both in cultivation and winemaking, in order to meet the needs of a modern consumer, while protecting the environment. Therefore, the use of synthetic chemicals in the field is not allowed, and no industrial yeasts are used in the fermentation. “Viticulture in Shamakhi is a centuries-old tradition and by forming a Presidia group we are aiming to take this tradition into international horizons” states Etibar Muradli, Madrasa producer.

More about COVCHEG

In Azerbaijan, through the COVCHEG project, Slow Food is working to safeguard what is left of local biodiversity, and develop sustainable local value chains as viable alternatives to the established and powerful ones that are wiping out local production. With the financial support of the European Union, Slow Food, in partnership withthe Azerbaijan Tourism Board is developing a project to support smallholder famers in the Greater Caucasus Mountains region. Working closely with local authorities, civil society groups, and other stakeholders, the EU-Azerbaijan partnership will share EU best practices and experience on local identities and gastronomy as well as the conservation of biodiversity and cultural heritage in the area.