22 January 2012

The Great Mountain Paxlava

We were holed up in snowy Quba, a town without apparent features. Sure, there was frozen mud and a soviet park, bald taxi tires spinning on the icy road. There were people and a small bustle, a closed carpet factory, some quiet mosques, concrete-floored tea houses. There were even two restaurants, populated by a sparse collection of policemen and town officials. But it was still bleak, not much more than a base camp for our excursion up to Xinaliq. Quba seemed just like so many other mountainous, remote, once-Russian outposts, with nothing to set it apart.
But slowly, as we clomped around in boots and hoods, the snowy, low-roofed landscape revealed a surprise. Everywhere, tucked into inauspicious nooks, were little shops and stands – too small to notice, at first – advertising “paxlava.” But what is this thing?
If you say it out loud, with a hard, back-of-the-throat “x,” “paxlava” sounds an awful lot like its Turkish cousin - baklava. This was illustrated for us by an amused vendor after several attempts on our part – we were trying to say something like “patch-lawee.” He punctuated each syllable with a swing of his spatula, then shook his head. “English? Allmagne?” he asked. “American” seemed to give us a free pass (it usually does in Azerbaijan).
Paxlava is made not with pistachio and honey, but with walnuts and sugar. Walnuts are a local specialty, and honey is something of a delicacy. The treats are made in large, round, covered pans and baked in slim, stovetop ovens. The walnut is mixed with sugar and then layered between thin sliced of pastry. Once cooked, the hard cakes are cut and soaked in a sugar syrup which is usually dyed bright red.
There are literally dozens of paxlava vendors in Quba, which is remarkable because there are so few other businesses. The majority are tiny, single person operations, sometimes just a small window in a family's home. It seems a hopeless day, to sit shivering in hat and coat, hands in pockets, an untouched tray in the window, only the hardscrabble streets of Quba to look at. We didn't see a single local buying or eating the stuff, and we didn't see a single tourist. It's good that the sugary diamonds keep so well - the paxlava business is a waiting game.
The price for a piece fluctuated quite a bit - depending more on the geniality of the vendor than on the quality of the product. Our first pieces weren't very good, but were the most expensive: two manat (about €2) for three pieces. Other shops had friendlier bakers and lower prices - sometimes as low as 30 qəpik.
The town's other specialty is "bükma," which is similar to paxlava, but a different shape. Despite all the signs for it, this other pastry didn't seem to be widely available.
How to describe the taste of paxlava? It's sweet. The better the paxlava, we decided, the more one can taste the walnut. The piece on the right was probably our favorite of all the types we tried (it was snowing, there was nothing else to do) because it wasn't as sugar-saturated.
But as for taste? Imagine eating mushy, over sweetened, walnut cookie dough that's sat out until crusty and dry. Not bad if there's only one piece. Kind of sickening after three.

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