The EU-funded ‘Community-based Value Chain Enhancement in the Greater Caucasus Mountains Area’ (COVCHEG) project has reached another fundamental milestone today: the creation of two new Slow Food Presidia in Azerbaijan.
Fitting perfectly into the Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, a core part of the European Green Deal, establishing a larger EU-wide network of protected areas on land and at sea, Slow Food Presidia directly support farmers and assist with the creation of farming communities that protect biodiversity and preserve traditional food production techniques. This helps farmers feel less isolated as they are able to overcome difficulties together, and can gain access to market without third -party involvement. Farmers also receive training from relevant experts and access to an international support network.
All products protected by the Presidia are historically and culturally linked to a specific region.
Buffalo farming has been practiced in Azerbaijan since ancient times, and plays a vital role in satisfying the nation’s demand for meat and dairy products. Buffalo farming helps increase soil fertility due to grazing and hoof movement over the ground. Caucasian buffalo produce 3-4 kg of milk per day. On average, buffalo milk produces just 7-8% of fat compared with cattle milk, and provides higher levels of protein, sugars, and minerals. While market channels for buffalo milk are not well developed in Azerbaijan, most farmers process their milk into butter, yoghurt, cream, cheese, kefir, and other products with dietary significance, which they consume in the village or sell locally. Buffalo meat is a nutritionally beneficial red meat as it contains twice as much haemoglobin content as beef but is lower in cholesterol. In recent years, Azerbaijan’s pastures have been decreasing as fields are used for industrial crops, so there is simply less space to graze livestock. Moreover, drought and reduced water sources, caused primarily by climate change, is affecting buffalo supply. This new Slow Food Presidium will work on increasing sustainable practice and promote wild buffalo pasturing among the local population. The buffalo owners have signed a production protocol stating that they will fully adhere to traditional buffalo grazing techniques and uphold animal welfare.
The mountains and hills of North-Western Azerbaijan provide a mild climatic condition ideal for the development of a wild beekeeping tradition, known as “tekne”.
Tekne replicates the natural habitat of tree-dwelling bees, using a hollowed log carved from soft trees, traditionally linden or alder wood. The log is cut in half before being carved to create a space for the bees. The size of these logs vary between 1 to 1.5 meters in length, and 40 to 50 centimeters in diameter. After the wide introduction of frame hives in the 19th century, Azerbaijan’s traditional and less productive tekne hives were increasingly replaced, and wild beekeeping techniques became uncommon. Today, only a few beekeepers continue to safeguard this traditional method.
Tekne hives have always been home for the rare Caucasian Mountain Grey honey bee (Apis mellifera caucasica), a local breed from the Caucasian Mountains. This species has particular characteristics that allows it to fly better in cooler conditions and live through the winter. The Caucasian Mountain Grey honey bee also boasts a longer tongue than other common species, which enables it to get nectar from a wider variety of flowers and in larger volumes.
The revival of the ancient tekne method goes hand in hand with protecting the Caucasian Mountain Grey honey bee. The Caucasian Mountain Honey Presidium engages beekeepers who are motivated to produce high-quality mountain honey. The production protocol signed by producers respects the insects, nature, and the ecosystem in which the apoids are raised.
Slow Food is also committed to safeguarding seeds in Azerbaijan through its Ark of Taste project with the Marsan tomato.
The small village of Marsan, in the Gakh District of northern Azerbaijan, has always been famous for tomato production. With the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s, a wave of imported tomato varieties poured into Azerbaijan, and the traditional Marsan tomato has become at risk of extinction.
Luckily, one woman from Marsan village saved the seeds of this sweet and juicy local variety, which she had inherited from her grandmothers. Today, only a few families continue to grow the Marsan tomato, exclusively for their own consumption. Extending the growing community will not only better preserve the variety and tradition, but also increase the recognition of Marsan village as a hotspot for tomato production. This is why Slow Food, through COVCHEG, is working to engage and support more farmers in its cultivation and transform it into a viable product for the commercial market.
Since being established in 2018, COVCHEG has mapped over 40 local varieties of vegetables, fruit, traditional homemade sweets, animal breeds, wild plants and other specialties linked to the villages and climatic zones of the Greater Caucasus Mountains in Azerbaijan. Of these, 31 out of the overall registered items are already on board the Ark of Taste, which selects and records quality food products from across the world that are at risk of extinction. The Ark of Taste also enabled the development of the Slow Food Cooks’ Alliance, a network of chefs from restaurants, bistros, canteens and street kitchens that supports small producers and the custodians of biodiversity everyday by using their products. At present, nine Azerbaijani chefs are part of the Alliance.
COVCHEG is funded by the EU and implemented by Slow Food in partnership with the Azerbaijan Tourism Board.
Through the COVCHEG project, Slow Food is working to preserve what remains of local biodiversity in Azerbaijan, and is developing sustainable local value chains as a viable alternative to the well-established and powerful supply chains that are wiping out local production. Slow Food, with the financial support of the European Union and in partnership with the Azerbaijan Tourism Board, is developing a project to support smallholder farmers in the Greater Caucasus Mountains region. The EU-Azerbaijan partnership closely works with local authorities, civil society groups and other stakeholders, to share the EU’s best practice and expertise on local identities and gastronomy, favoring the conservation of local biodiversity and cultural heritage.
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Slow Food is a worldwide network of local communities founded in 1989 in order to counteract the disappearance of local food traditions and the spread of fast food culture. Since then, Slow Food has grown to become a global movement that includes millions of people in more than 160 countries, working to ensure that we can all have access to good, clean and fair food.