AZERBAIJAN – LAND OF FIRE
AZERBAIJAN: THE LAND OF FIRE
We chose Azerbaijan as a destination for a week’s holiday for no reason: pure curiosity – that it had hosted the Formula One, Saha Hadid had designed one of the most modern and psychedelic cultural museum in Baku, that it was or had been the centre meeting point for the silk road caravanserai and were curious to see what their wines were like.
Little did we expect the wealth of history, geological phenomena and richness of culture in all respects that we found: religious, culinary; civilisation from Caucasian /Norwegians to Zoroastrians, Christians, to invading Islam, Communism, then oil wealth and ending in such a beautiful, liberal, modern melting pot of a country country, at least in Baku, the capital.
Reports on the internet were not very reassuring: very difficult to obtain visas, be very careful with photography, you can be dragged off to prison if seen taking photos they do not like!! etc etc.
We mostly stayed in Baku with two day trips and an overnight trip to Sheki, one of the old capitals. We saw phenomena we never witnessed before: mud volcanoes, on the Ashberon Peninsula where you get mud eruptions, instead of lava and a mountain resting on a belt of fire (Yanar Dag). In Gobustan National Park we saw a wealth of beautiful rock carvings, plus a rock that sounds like a tambourine when tapped!!!
On our overnight trip we went to Sheki. En route we took the rope line (funicular) across the Caucasian mountains with magnificent views from everywhere. We stayed at the Marxal Hotel & Spa, a super deluxe resort with beautiful amenities and gorgeous local food. (Our rating for the hotel ★★★★ £C, for the restaurant, ★★★ £B – for key see https://www.winebehindthelabel.org/gastro-touring/)
The next day we visited the city, with the Palace of Sheki Khans, a masterpiece of stained glass, and Islamic architecture. We also visited the Albanian church where were laid the remains of the first Caucasians, measuring well over 6 foot in height, and historically the first travellers to Norway (they discovered remains of the same boats as the Vikings). Albanian does not mean from Albania but the “All White” sort of Aryans (think of Albino).
We visited some other places all surprising and exhilarating! We also visited a Zoroastrian Temple.
Back to Baku, by the Caspian Sea, attacked sporadically by two contradicting winds from the Caucasus and from the Caspian, we visited the old city with its old palaces, and hamams, castles, a Maiden Tower, and other historical buildings. A striking feature in Baku are the number of oil rigs all along the coast by the magnificent Boulevard that parallels the shore of the Caspian Sea.
At night most of their ultra-modern buildings, the Flame Tower, The Saha Hadid (Cultural Centre), most of the museums, are lit in the evening by whole projections of magnificent lights that gives the impression of an enchanted City!
The two Museums we loved best: the Saha Hadid cultural Centre (Heydar Alyev Markazi) and the Carpet Museum (Xalça Musey), are just unique in the world and we were quite happy for once to give up on the impressionists, expressionists, constructivists, minimalists and all the “ists” of European Art galleries and museums.
Food in Azerbaijan
As for the food, it’s fairly typical Middle Eastern/Turkish, with an emphasis on grilled meats and tasty fresh salads. A typical meal starts with a salad of whole small cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoes and lots of leaves and herbs and then goes on to typically grilled meats. For breakfast, though, this salad can be accompanied by a variety of soft cheeses, sweet butter, honey, eggs and yoghurts. Grilling seems to be the main way of cooking – lamb, in particular, but there is also chicken, beef, fish (Sturgeon if you want – at a price). There is an intensity of flavours in the leaves that you get – parsley, coriander, dill, which is much pleasing to the palate. A typical first course is Qutab – savoury pancakes stuffed with meat and herbs and also there are lots of aubergine dishes – a typical one is the Manqual salad where aubergines, peppers and tomatoes are roasted on an open flame and the vegetables chopped in cubes and mixed with olive oil, vinegar, salt and herbs. The home-made breads are baked in giant tandoori clay ovens fired mostly with coal with dough baked stuck on the sides of this huge pot and served on the pot, accompanying all meals and are delicious.
Sadj or Sac is a combination main dish of various meats in an open metal dish accompanied by tomatoes, rice, mushrooms and the inevitable herbs served on the table with a flame underneath to keep it chafing. Other main dishes are kebabs of meat and fish, bastirma (pressed marinated meats) and a typical dessert would be the diamond shaped pakhlava – a fiery red coloured pastry stuffed with nuts with intensely sweet flavours.
Eating in restaurants can sometimes be a challenge to your patience – inept service being the most common problem. It’s best to avoid the touristy restaurants in Baku Old Town and along the Boulevard – the best value for money place we found was on the last day of our visit at a restaurant called Fisincan in Fountain Square ★★★ £A. It was not really possible to rate the other restaurants we ate in, as they were either in the hotel we stayed at in Baku (not recommended) or were part of the tour group excursions and which were pretty basic. In Sheki, as mentioned above, the Marxal Hotel and Spa was very comfortable, and the restaurant served good food, but both the food and wine service were what the French might call folklorique!
Wine in Azerbaijan
Like its neighbours, Georgia, Turkey and Iran, Azerbaijan can lay claim to producing wine for some 7,000 years. Grape seed and leaves, stone relics for winemaking, large clay jars with wine traces and other artefacts found during archaeological excavations have been attributed by the scientists to early times of the history of mankind. Various plant residues and grape seeds have been excavated around the Shomutepe historic monument near Agstafa that proves the culture of winemaking in Azerbaijani territories dates back to the cradle of winemaking. Local tastes are for making wines fairly sweet and it has only been recently that attention has been turned to making wines of internationally acceptable standards.
In the early 1980s, serious attention began to be made to internationalise wine production and many classic international varietals were planted for that effect alongside autochthonal varietals such as Madrasa, Ganja Pink and White Shani and grapes also found in neighbouring countries such as Rkatsiteli and Madrassa. However, in 1985, whilst Azerbaijan was still part of the Soviet Union, after the anti-drinking law of the Soviet leadership adopted in 1985, more than 130 hectares of productive vineyards and infrastructure developed for many years were destroyed and Azerbaijan’s economy suffered from the damage.
Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, an emphasis has been made to progress the industry and today, there are about a dozen wineries that can boast production of international standards with perhaps another 30 or so more dealing with more local tastes. We haven’t tasted them all but are getting round to it! Local wines are freely found in restaurants but don’t expect sommelier-grade service! A big seller in Azerbaijan is Pomegranate wine and wine that is made from various other fruits, but this publication is sticking to grapes! For rating of some Azerbaijani wines we have sampled, look out for them in the forthcoming 11th edition of Wine behind the label.
A beautiful, interesting country to visit, made all the more interesting inasmuch as it’s not on the main tourist circuit yet, so our advice is to get there before it changes for the worse!!!