Cherries, Apricots, Alcha and Other Sweet Things
Walking to work, the distinct smell of fermenting white and black tut (mulberries) follows, and I can feel them underfoot. I don't even try to avoid them, they are far too numerous - in the sidewalk and the street. This is my first experience with this fruit tree (though I've heard plenty of "mulberry wine" references.) One of the days I'm feeling unwell, my host mother picks a batch from the yard, boils them in a giant, steep-sided pot into a thick syrup. Giving me some with tea, she tells me - like orange juice or echinacea back home - it is a good stomach dərman (medicine).
While much of what I learned leading up to and including the first few weeks in Azerbaijan has proved to be overstated, two things have definitely persisted: tea and fruit. Now that spring has given way to summer, and blossoms to fruit, a lush array of fresh-made mürəbbə (a type of syrupy jam with junks of fruit) drips off my spoon into scalding tea. Another thing we learned early on, from many proud Azerbaijanis, is that the country has 8 climatic zones, which in turn means a rich diversity of flavors are grown in all corners. The meyva (fruit) is so diverse, that in many ways promoting nar (pomegranate) as symbolic of Azerbaijan is a disservice. Feyxoa (a feijoa or pineapple guava), əncir (fig) or heyva (quince), among others, could just as easily take the throne as national fruit.
During my training period, where I desperately struggled to get a grasp on a language so incredibly different from my own, my host family kindly picked pomegranates and figs for me from their yard, and inquired whether I liked it, and whether we had them in in the States. Admittedly, I'd never even seen a fig that was not in the form of a Fig Newton - an interesting green exterior and bright purple interior with an even more interesting texture. It was also in this first family that I tasted ağ pendır (white cheese, usually salty and smooth), with tart, apricot-orange jam on fresh bread - heaven in my mouth.
When winter hit, the preserves lasted for a while, and at my new home in the north, honey replaced the jam. Like so much else, the honey has a strong seasonal quality, changing flavor with the changing flowers. My host family lent me my own jar of honey, kept warm next to the peç (stove) so it would be ready to sweeten my tea or bread.
This winter was wet with heavy snow, and this spring and summer continued to bring moisture - from what I hear, it is much more than in past years. This leads to an interesting problem: there is a lot of fruit. This is wonderful for me. Fruit is abundant, and cheap. During a late-night stroll around 10pm (about the time everyone goes for a stroll in the cool evening) I passed a man sitting next to a small table - selling prepackaged cookies for 20 qəpik, and watermelon for 40 qəpik. He looked up with tired eyes, hoping I was interested. This isn't so great for the many people who sell in the bazaar, in roadside stands or makeshift stores on sidewalks. Which, talking with a producer, brought up an interesting point: in a market economy a "bad" season is "great" for some, but a really "abundant" season is bad for everyone (except the buyers, that is.) The low prices, as I've heard, are also because regulations have restricted the flow of Azerbaijani fruit to Russia - that big ol' market to the south. Mainly, making it tough for the "little guy" (of which there are many) from getting their produce through the hoops and on to Russian plates.
Most households have at least some form of fruit or nut tree. As unemployment is rather high in Azerbaijan (and widely considered the number one problem by my friends), families find other ways to make it; having a fruit tree to reduce spending is one way. I've spent several evening hours perched on a ladder, picking dark cherries while the birds fight for mulberries next to me. Within a day or two, they are used up - in jam or eaten raw. Going the extra mile to actually sell the fruit is not always lucrative, however. Often families will, instead, trade a bit of one fruit for another - some of the cherries I picked were given to a neighbor, who in turn gave us çiyələk (strawberries).
The first sign of spring came when alça started popping up in every stand and shop around my home. Green, a bit smaller than a golf-ball, tart and sweet - alça soon grows up to be gavalı or plums. What is interesting, is that I have had plums before, but never have I eaten alça.
After all, an assumption I have about fruit, is that you eat it when it's "ripe." The idea that a fruit can be ripe twice in it's lifecycle was delightfully tasty news. Sadly, alça season was short-lived, and not even a picture is left.
A common question I get is: what are your national or traditional meals? I'm often at a loss. I sometimes speak about hamburgers, or the many game meats common in Montana. One local friend asked me about "barbeque" - which he felt was a national meal of the USA - and we agreed that the key difference between cooked meat and barbeque was the sauce. He declared that they had great barbeque sauce and his mother cooked up a batch of sour plum sauce to be slathered on strips of lamb. It was the tangiest sauce that has danced with my tongue. Delicious.