James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Honey Season is Over, But You’re Just in Time for Honey Vodka Season

Honey Season is Over, But You’re Just in Time for Honey Vodka Season

Honey in Azerbaijan

I had narrowly avoided massacring a dozen newly hatched chicks in a box, whose chirping had accompanied us up from Qax. Stumbling backwards as the rusted-out Soviet-era bus corkscrewed us deeper into the Caucasus, I instead tumbled into the lap of heavily mustached Georgian-speaking shepherd. He didn’t smile.

After a long hard winter, we had left Baku to return to northwestern Azerbaijan, only a band of mountains away from with the Russian border, in search of something we had found the previous summer.

Getting off at the last stop before the bus turned back to Shaki, we turned north and continued alongside a fast-flowing river, fortified with snowmelt, that was barely recognizable from the calm waterway we had camped beside just a few months ago. The lush green rising up the flanks of the mountains gave us hope that the shepherds we were looking for had not yet moved to higher pastures. We had come back in search of more of the best honey I had ever tasted.

Past the crumbling beehive-shaped watchtowers, the house came into view. Ribbons were still tied to one of the trees and meat was curing on the balcony. But the table covered in honeycomb and jars of thick, dark honey was gone.

We were just about to turn back when we heard a cry from behind the house, and even with my meager Azeri and Russian language skills, it sounded friendly. We were called up to the balcony like long-lost family and through gesture, hand signals, and faded photographs we slowly learned that one of their sons had left for Moscow and the other for in Dubai.

Whatever the case, homemade breads soon edged out goat cheese and pickled peppers on the table as customary tea with sugar cubes on the side was served.

Our host then broke into a gold-toothed grin below his woolen papakha hat and lugged a large glass jug onto the table. The glass was clear and the ragged label spelt out in Cyrillic something that seemed to read “CCCP.” We were made to understand that while their honey wasn’t ready yet this year, last year’s leftover honey had been distilled into vodka.

Our tea glasses were filled to the brim and a toast was made. “To Allah,” my host exclaimed as he motioned to me to drain my glass. (He claimed that only drinks made of fermented grapes or grains were forbidden, and what we were drinking came from his own honey and potatoes, so there was no taboo.)

As we drank round after round, I felt glad that the Iranian and Saudi battle for influence over the Azeri soul was confined to their elaborately financed mosques in larger cities. My hosts that day were mostly concerned that I had left home without a photograph of my family.

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