Caucasus Mountain Chestnuts
Chestnut cultivation in the north western part of the Caucasus region is one of the main sources of sustenance for the Azerbaijani mountain populations of the Caucasus. Chestnut trees grow together with oak, beech and hornbeam trees.
The mountain chestnuts of these areas are rather small and it is difficult to remove their skin. In the kitchen they are used to prepare traditional dishes such as pilaf, Galya (meat stew) and chestnut soup. In rural areas, chestnuts are also eaten simply roasted.
It is a fruit that is widespread in mountainous areas, but these chestnuts have different characteristics which vary from region to region. The most common variety comes from the Gabala district and is used for a traditional dish called “Dosheme Ash” or “Şabalıd plov” (which literally translates to chestnut pilaf).
The recipe requires that the rice is cleaned and left in salted water for half an hour, lemon juice is added to the water. A pot of water is then placed on the fire and when it boils, salt is added. The rice is then poured in. While the rice is cooking, the pieces of meat must be salted and fried separately together with chestnuts and onions. When the rice is cooked it is then drained and poured over the fried mixture, a little bit of yellow ginger powder and some finely chopped fresh herbs are also added. The mixture is then covered with more rice, more powdered ginger and half a cup of melted butter and left to cook over a very low heat. For a traditional pilaf it is essential to use a special iron cauldron which has a real boiler in its base, this is where the embers are placed.
This dish takes about five hours to prepare and it is usually served to guests as a welcome gesture. There are different recipes of pilaf which use different chestnuts depending on the families, who keep them scrupulously secret. In Gakh they also prepare Niguzi, a very simple sweet cake, and various chestnut-based soups.
Since 2003, a high mortality of chestnut trees has been reported, this due particularly to a fungus called Cryphonectria parasitica, which is more simply referred to as “chestnut cancer”. Climate change and poor forest maintenance play a role in the decrease of chestnut plants in the Azerbaijani forests, it rains less and less each year and periods of dryness are more frequent. Over the past two years, there has been a decline in yields and an increasing deterioration in tree health.