Its origins are rather hazy. While the flaky pastry rich with nuts and honey is eaten in many parts of the world, no one agrees on where or when the first incarnation of what we now call baklava developed.
Some claim the Assyrians were the first to layer flat bread, honey and nuts as far back as eighth century BCE. In the second century BCE the Romans prepared the honey-covered placenta cake, which thankfully bore no resemblance to any part of the female anatomy. Then came the Byzantine Empire, with its heart in what is now modern-day Turkey. It spread its influence across parts of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, so it’s no surprise there are countries in all of these parts claiming the oozy, nutty pastries as their own.
For now though I’m in Azerbaijan and my attention is focused on one regional variation, Baku pakhlava. My first stop is Ichari Shahar, the ancient walled city at the heart of modern-day Baku. The architecture of the atmospheric, UNESCO-listed old town almost distracts me from my calling until I catch a sight to behold: row upon row of glorious, shiny pakhlava.
There is, however, more than one variety on display. That’s because each of Azerbaijan’s regions has its own style of pakhlava, food photographer and recipe developer Samira Damirova tells me. Samira, who was originally from Baku but now lives in Australia, explains there’s also brightly coloured Quba pakhlava filled with coriander, walnuts and saffron, Gandja pakhlava resplendent with its 18 layers of filo, and the famed Sheki pakhlava, made from rice flour and finished with saffron decorations.
We continue on to a bakery called Sunbul where I’m to learn how to make the delicacy. I arrive at the address expecting an elegant shopfront; instead, it’s an apartment block. The industrial staircase leads towards the gentle hum of female voices, and I’m welcomed warmly into Elmira’s home, where three aproned women await, rolling pins in hand.
“We do things a bit differently here,” baker Nigar tells me with a big smile. “The main two products we make are Shirvanshah pakhlava and Semeni halvasi.”
The dough for these sweets is made using the ‘milk’ produced when sprouted wheat is ground and strained, which is then mixed with flour. “We only sweeten them with a little honey,” Nigar continues. “They are so healthy for you.”
The aim at Sunbul is to create handmade Azerbaijani treats for visitors to take home rather than a box of mass-produced sweets. “This is the real deal,” says Nigar. “When most tourists come they don’t know what they are buying and how it should taste. Some makers will not put nuts in every layer – they’ll scrimp on the ingredients. It compromises the taste and quality. We are keeping to the old traditions and you can taste the difference.”
As I pop a piece into my mouth, I nod in agreement. The flavour is intense. The spices sing, the pastry flakes and melts in my mouth, and I’m not left with a layer of sugar masking my taste buds.
We spend three hours in the kitchen. Every step in the creation of the pakhlava is carefully undertaken by one of the women: grinding the walnuts by hands, kneading the dough, rolling out the pastry into eight fine layers, sprinkling each with just the right amount of spicy nut mixture, then cutting, baking, pouring over melted butter and finally drenching the cooked pastries with syrup. Traditionally, this process would bring women together, with each one taking control of one part of the method.
“At home we can’t make it as beautiful as a factory,” says Elmira. I beg to differ. These are the most beautiful pakhlava I have ever seen. “It’s still our first year of business and things are growing so fast,” she continues. “Next time you visit we hope to be in an industrial kitchen.”
Just a few months later, I check back and they have indeed moved into new, expanded premises. More pakhlava for all can only be a good thing.
Here are two of the best spots to try pakhlava in Azerbaijan.
SUNBUL AZERBAIJAN SWEETS
This boutique bakery in the heart of Baku’s old town specialises in handmade pakhlava and halva from traditional recipes.
Karvansara Bazaar, Icheri Sheher, Baku
It’s not uncommon for people to drive here from all over Azerbaijan to get a fix of Sheki pakhlava. The line out the door all day speaks for itself.
122 Mirze Feteli Axundov küçesi, Sheki