9 stops on a slow food travel itinerary through Azerbaijan 

Slow down, sample and savour the flavours of this intoxicating country…

Explore Azerbaijan via a slow food approach and you’ll unearth the country’s most authentic flavours while discovering centuries-old traditions and food production practices that put the climate – and Azerbaijani cultural heritage – first. Encompassing hands-on workshops and experiences with local artisans, here are nine unmissable slow food highlights across the Greater Caucasus Mountains Region.

1: Discover the viniculture history of Shamakhi

Among Azerbaijan’s three key wine-making regions, the mountainous Shamakhi region, historically known as the Shirvan region, is considered its most famous. And thanks to growing support from slow food groups, the indigenous Madrasa grape is having a bit of a renaissance.

Named after a village by the same name, Madrasa vines now stripe fields surrounding many different villages in the Shamakhi region, as they have done for thousands of years; evidence of wine production here dates back as far as 2,000BC. Traditionally, producers only ever made enough wine for their own consumption, but now they are opening their doors so visitors can sample this historic grape for themselves on guided wine tastings.

2: Meet Rustam at his guesthouse

Reached via a valley road that was once part of the ancient Silk Route, Lahij Guest House is located by the eponymous mountain town, inscribed by UNESCO for its intangible cultural heritage of copper craftsmanship. Replete with locally crafted Azerbaijani furnishings, the guest house is owned by Rustam, who leads visitors on an informative tour, highlighting the cultural and gastronomic importance of rosehip, which thrives in north-east Azerbaijan’s alluvial soils.

A member of the Wild Caucasian Rosehip Slow Food Presidium, Rustam will explain how this perennial plant – that can grow up to two metres high and is lauded for its health-promoting properties – has been used to produce syrups and jams for centuries. Its tangy and vitamin C-rich fruit – usually red, orange or purple in colour – also serves as a key ingredient for the traditional sweets and table desserts you’ll see served with Azerbaijani tea.

Ismayilli guest house Lakeside Garden is another member of the presidium, a social enterprise introduces you to local farmers and offers informative food workshops that immerse you in an array of culinary experiences, from learning how to prepare ayran (a traditional Azerbaijani yoghurt drink) and preparing traditional Azerbaijani tea, to cooking saj (a type of flatbread) on an open fire. Visitors are encouraged to try their hand at creating traditional rosehip syrup, before taking a garden tour, exploring the mountain region’s native plants and herbs. Dining on hearty, organic Azerbaijani produce at the family-run farm is also included.

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3: Meet the ladies of the Arzu Women Group at Chab Sumaghalli Village

Formed under the Agro Action of Azerbaijani Women Project, the Arzu Women Group is a social enterprise aimed at promoting food security in Azerbaijan’s northern Ismayilli region. It also helps to empower the lives of rural women through the education of business planning and farming. One of the ways travellers can support the cause is by taking part in workshops with the women, learning traditional skills like carpet weaving and using locally grown garden fruits and nuts to make Azerbaijani pastries and sweets, and hand-distilled Azerbaijani distillate.

From the remote Chab Sumagjalli village, the women share their knowledge of ingredients like the Rjal apple, listed by the Ark of Taste catalogue for its importance to the country’s cultural heritage. There are hands-on activities too, like making traditional dolma from peanut leaves and, in the summer months, making your own propolis using flower and lime-tree blossom honey.

4: Join the Nij Workshop at Udi Village and dine at Udi Restaurant

Udis are one of the many minority ethnic communities of multi-cultural Azerbaijan. And today, most Udis work in agriculture, in Azerbaijan’s northern regions, producing products like pickles, pork, vodka and wine. The latter sees vines planted under trees like oak, chestnut and walnut, which eventually climb into the canopies (reaching heights of 30m). Locals climb the trees when it’s time to harvest the grapes and the resulting wine is used to celebrate milestone events in the community.

Guided tours take visitors to the rural village of Nij, around 20km west of Gabala, distinguished by its hazelnut groves, historical churches and 6,000-strong Udi population. You’ll visit the Azerbaijan Udi Hearth Historical Ethnographic Park and Museum, situated in a traditional 19th-century house, and later enjoy an agricultural workshop, with the chance to cook traditional food like qutab (flatbreads stuffed with various fillings; Udis traditionally use walnuts or nettles), dolma (grape leaves stuffed with rice and various meats, enriched with herbs or nuts) and traditional sweets and pastries. You can also try these traditional dishes in The Udi restaurant, next door, where most of the ingredients are sourced from local Udi farmers.

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5: Satisfy your sweet tooth with Richal

Azerbaijanis love their desserts and their vibrant appearances and intoxicating aromas make them appealing to all of the senses. Most desserts in Azerbaijan are typically made with nuts and flaky pastry but Richal (also known as Irchal) is a fruity sweet that is a classic in the regions of Ismayilli and Shamakhi. This is partly because of the unique apple variety Golden Ahmad that grows in Ismayilli, even thought richal made with mulberry is much more common.

Made by mincing dried apples, pears, walnuts and raisins, which are then poured over a saucepan, poured over grape molasses and boiled; it’s ready to eat (often on toasted bread) once the water has evaporated. But the recipe’s real uniqueness comes in its use of bakmaz (molasses), a viscous syrup obtained when boiling the fruit. Unfortunately, with the rise in the importation of overseas chocolate-based treats and industrialisation of confectionery making means the future of richal is under threat. So, when you visit Ismayilli and Shamakhi, keep the future of this fruity pud alive by rounding off your meal with a portion.

6: See Gabala’s hazelnut heritage

Situated around 220km northwest of Baku, Gabala – or Qabala, as it’s sometimes known – is a multicultural ancient city that’s thought to date back around 2,000 years. At its zenith, in the 4th and 5th centuries BC, it was an important political, economic and commercial centre. Today, it’s a popular ski resort and slow food destination, rewarding visitors with historical monuments and myriad ways to savour the traditional Gabala cuisine. The locally-grown hazelnuts here (used to make the regional lula dish – a mix of honey, sugar and ground hazelnuts) are heralded for their high oil content, while local Caucasus mountain Ata-Baba hazelnuts translate as ‘passed on from father to son’ in the local dialect.

To help protect the small-scale producers within these mountain communities who still use ancient, organic methods to grow their crop, the Ata-Baba Hazelnut Presidium was established. It not only ensures these local hazelnut farmers earn a fair living but safeguards their age-old cultivation techniques for generations to come.

7: Go fruit picking at Sheki Bio Garden

The historic centre of Sheki has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 2019. And heralded for its mosaiced 18th-century Khan’s Palace, traditional merchant houses and various ancient crafts (including their traditional Shebeke windows), it’s also celebrated for its traditional produce. Stop at Sheki’s 19th-century mill to see where some of the region’s rice flour is made, or, alternatively, explore the 80,000 square-mile oasis known as Sheki Bio-Garden, run by organic farmers who breed their own livestock and grow unique local fruit and vegetables, including everything from figs and almonds to grapefruit and quince, that are found all across the country. It’s an exemplary example of efficient, organic farming, making every square inch of soil count in the name if innovative agriculture. From dining on trout reared in the onsite breeding river to picking fruit from its various gardens and orchards, there are plenty of ways for visitors to get involved it’s a great way to immerse yourself in your slow food journey of Azerbaijan.

8: Join a honey-making and bee-keeping workshop

A tradition that has spanned several centuries, beekeeping carries a huge cultural and gastronomic importance for Azerbaijanis. Although Azerbaijan’s honey production dipped drastically between the 1960s and 1980s, a project led by the Ministry of Agriculture and United Nations has helped boost the sector, offering training to local farmers and restoring the native Caucasian honeybee, a subspecies prized for its high honey productivity. The mild conditions of Azerbaijan’s mountainous north-west has meant a wild beekeeping tradition has flourished here for millennia, known as tekne, where soft wood logs are hollowed out to replicate the bees’ natural habitat and the mountains give them plenty of places to collect pollen from, like chestnut, apple and peach trees

With the arrival of more modern techniques and fewer beekeepers using teknes hives, the Caucasian Mountain Honey Slow Food Presidium was established to not only preserve this ancient technique but support beekeepers committed to producing high-quality mountain honey. You can visit some of the producers still employing the teknes method, where guided tours show you this the whole process of this ancient technique, as well as offer honey-making workshops.

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9: Get stuck into a jam-making workshop with Bahar

Honey isn’t the only preserve that’s steeped in tradition in Azerbaijan. Jam-making is entwined with Azerbaijani culture, where jams and other fruit preserves are always offered at family gatherings and important festivals. But locals love enjoying jams as part of more simple affairs, such as enjoying a cup of tea over a catch-up with friends.

To see jam heritage for yourself, head to family-run bee farm Api Delta in the Qakh district’s tiny village of Lekit. Here, family member Bahar is known for the legendary james, pastries and natural medicinal products she makes using ingredients she grows in her own garden. You can learn from her expertise first-hand as she runs regular jam-making masterclasses, so when you’re at home with a cuppa in one hand and freshly toasted bread thickly spread with Azerbaijani jam in the other, your mind will be cast back to Azerbaijan.