Head for the hills

Baku, Monday 12th March 2007

International Women’s Day: is it one day in the year when the rest of us are supposed to do what we should already be doing the other three hundred and sixty four and show some respect or it just an other occasion for commercial avarice and ostentation?  Judging by the sights I saw last week I fear the latter prevails in this city.  The day itself – Thursday – was a national holiday so it was not difficult to spot early celebrants on Wednesday evening: mostly women carrying small bouquets or single roses who were dressed like they had just left the office and had obviously received the gift from their male colleague(s).  They were fairly unassuming but the same could not be said of the mixed table of eight sitting across from me in a restaurant that evening.  They had blocked an additional table for four with their coats and assorted bags of gifts bought at suitably boutique-ish shops around town.

Twenty-four hours later the city centre was a zoo.  As I walked home up Nizami Street and across Fountain Square (the two main pedestrian areas of the city) at half past six I was confronted by growing numbers of morose looking men with ever larger bouquets in hand, passing a never before seen quantity of flower-selling street hawkers all the while.  In the square the human traffic became more families on parade with mother, father and offspring all strolling in their finest garb.

Meanwhile the motorised traffic on the road next to the square was bedlam as rush-hour volumes of cars tried to pass along streets that were even more heavily double-, triple- and quadruple parked than I thought even Baku drivers were capable of.  It is almost superfluous to mention that all the restaurants in the city were booked solid.  If I’d seen a few smiles on a few faces during that walk I would probably have thought it was a great celebratory occasion and doffed my figurative hat to the good people of Baku for being such jolly folk.  As it was I got the distinct impression that everyone was miserably going through the motions to put on the show for the ‘public’ and “keep up with the Jones’s” as the English saying goes; rather like the behaviour I witnessed at the Opera Ballet last year but on a very large scale.  Once I had got home I stayed indoors.

The weekend was a much brighter affair, starting with dinner on Friday night at a restaurant I had not visited before.  The Sheki Restaurant shares its name with a town about seven hours train journey away from Baku and includes suitable regional specialities on its menu.  The entire interior is a warren of rough lumber corridors, stairways and little dining rooms that may or may not be typical of Sheki but certainly does give a rustic feel and a definite sense of privacy during your meal.  We had placed the necessary advanced order to eat Piti: a particular soup of that area.  Although vodka is apparently recommended to accompany Piti it is not nearly as extreme a dish as the other pre-order soup I tried recently, xaş.  There is a large piece of fat in the bowl when it arrives (considered a delicacy by many around here I believe) but this time around the beef broth actually has some lean beef in it, along with a piece of fruit like a small plum, a chestnut and an awful lot of chickpeas.  We eschewed vodka in favour of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and enjoyed a very pleasant meal.

Sunday saw a farewell party but to make change it was not a departing colleague but a closing restaurant that occasioned the get-together.  I have recently been introduced to the owners of the Philarmonic (sic): an Italian restaurant beneath the concert hall of the same name.  They invited a group of people to dine at their premises one last time before they pack their bags and move to a new address in the city and I was fortunate enough to be one of those guests.  The food was very fresh and cooked with as many ingredients as could be imported from Italy to give as authentic a flavour and texture as possible.

Particularly fresh were the two carp that were served: they had been swimming around in a tank by the front door until that morning (attempts made to explain this to the three year-old boy who wanted to know where the fish had gone were numerous and inventive).  During the consumption of said carp the lady of the house introduced me to the finer points of fish dissection and demonstrated how some of the best flavours and textures were to be found in the fish’s head.  I was surprised to discover how much meat is actually available in that area that it is indeed most tender and tasty.  Never thought I’d voluntarily eat a fish brain either let alone enjoy it; one learns something every day.  I also discovered that a Cuban member of the waiting staff is keen on his cigars and imports them from home specially.  He matched me a cigar (a Romeo y Julieta of Clinton-humbling proportions) and a fine “cherry Port” from Andalusia that rounded off the meal together very nicely.  One of the best six-hour lunches I’ve had for a long time.


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