by Ian Peart
On Friday 12 November 2010, the only place to be was Goychay, Azerbaijan. Those who missed the town’s 5th annual Pomegranate Festival will surely mourn and make a note in their 2011 diaries, as soon as the date of the 6th Festival is announced. Those who attended are grateful for their good fortune, and will make the same note. Visitors from the capital are doubly grateful – as with many experiences in Azerbaijan, the journey is often at least as eventful and interesting as the destination. This may explain why, despite the speed that most drivers here crave, a trip always seems to take much longer than planned; always expect the unexpected and go with the flow. This is not the place for the tourist with a tick list or a ‘been there, done that’ approach.
The route in from the east, skirting Shamakha and over the pass down to Aghsu is the perfect autumn drive. As you top the rise from Baku the landscape miraculously transforms from scrubby desert to lush grassland and then forests. The barren, sandy ridges become velvety emerald folds that seem to plant themselves on the slopes like the toes of a great green giant. Then the trees and shrubs blush in all their autumnal glory, brushed in shades of mustard, green and pomegranate skin.
Passing Shamakha and swinging south towards Aghsu, the forests thicken on the heights and inviting open-air restaurants appear among the trees: wisps of smoke beckon from barbecue and samovar, wafting a promise of kebabs and tea too tempting to resist. Under a pure blue sky, we stretched the legs with a warming armudu (pear-shaped tea glass) and looked down into a valley vanishing under white, cotton-down cloud; a few uncovered peaks held up like islands in a sea as misty as you are told in a tale. But time to move on and plunge down through the vapour to the fertile flatlands below....
Leaving Aghsu and driving along the valley to Goychay, the business of the season soon becomes apparent. As on the way to Quba, individual entrepreneurship lines the road with temptation; verge-side stalls bending under the weight of harvest produce, shamelessly flaunt the glistening, ruby-drop fruit that is the local speciality. Bottles of the rich, wine-dark juice hardly make it easier to pass by, but, already delayed by the mists of Aghsu, we have to hurry on to the Pomegranate Festival.
The juice of the fruit has recently been prominent in the West as the health drink to be seen with, but the east knew of the pomegranate’s divine status long before the English even got round to sticking pins in it. Goychay boasts of growing every variety of this prolific fruit and it has this in common with paradise - the Qur’an specifies it as one of the trees growing there. The fruit also has a number of mentions in the Bible – it seems to have been particularly favoured by Solomon, to whom the Queen of Sheba offered “spiced wine of the juice of my pomegranate”.
In any case, 12 November was pomegranate paradise in Goychay; it was depicted, presented, prepared and celebrated in every conceivable form and fashion: paintings, models, statues, collages and clothing; juiced and jammed; sliced, splayed, squeezed and sauced – it is amazing the things that human creativity can do with nature’s own jewellery box.
The festival in this form has only been going for five years, but older celebratory traditions have been incorporated and the pleasant, tree-lined, central street was a procession of entertainment, with local youth especially keen to show their prowess, whether in the arts (painting); mental (chess) or physical (tae-kwon-do) combat; sport (volleyball); or in traditional music and dance. A tightrope walker was brave enough to display his expertly casual skills on a wire which appeared to be secured by very little and which traversed a road teeming with sightseers and the odd vehicle. The arrival of the entourage of dignitaries did not faze him at all and, in the tradition of court jesters the world over, he enjoyed the informality bestowed by his calling and waved happily from a prone position on the wire – or perhaps he was simply over-fortified by pomegranate juice.
Following the entourage, we witnessed some very tense moments at the weigh-in for the biggest pomegranate competition (3kgs?). But despite this, and for all the sweat and creativity that had gone into producing some imaginative displays, stalls and exhibits, the juice-squeezing contest was the one which really got the crowd on its toes – for very good reason.
Press and parade
Picture the scene, imagine the adrenaline, as the contestants - five good men and true - stand in line, shoulder to shoulder, behind a low table, waiting for their eminent judges. On the white tablecloth before each man: an empty glass jar and twenty pomegranates. The judges approach, searching for the stopwatch on their mobiles; the five tweak nervously at their H&S rubber gloves....
The men pick up the first fruit, stiffen the sinews and crouch, pomegranate poised over jar. The countdown begins. Judges lean forward - cameras rise - the men tense. Timekeeper barks! Men press! Juice squirts! Judges retreat!
Some of the juice gets into the jars in a frenzy of picking, pressing, squirting and dropping. At the order to stop, the pristine tablecloth has become the sort of image taken at the scene of a nasty crime. Judging the amount of juice squeezed is debated; is the froth to be included? Luckily, the holiday mood prevails and Benjamin Franklin steps in to personally congratulate each of the contestants (Benjamin Franklin? – see: http://is.gd/io5Hd). They then turned to complete their task. It is said that, in history, warriors drank the blood of the vanquished, but delivering the coup de grace to a dozen pomegranates is far easier and much healthier - the juice was soon downed.
The final event was a drive-past by lorries, each bearing the name of the village where the fruit it carried had been picked. The seemingly endless procession drove home just how fertile these flatlands are and, after the fun, was a more solemn reminder that pomegranate-growing is a serious business in the life of the region.
This combination of celebration and promotion had been part of the build-up to the day, as we learned from newly-elected parliamentarian Jeyhun Osmanli. The chairman of the youth-oriented Ireli (Forward) public association had helped organise the delivery of baskets of pomegranates to embassies in Azerbaijan – as gifts from the Goychay executive.
Goychay is not on every tourist’s itinerary, but if you are in Azerbaijan in autumn then a drive via Aghsu to the now firmly established Pomegranate Festival is a venture you will not regret. Vistas, health and hospitality guaranteed!