Rubies of Herat
Left relatively unscathed by the recent conflict, Herat province in Afghanistan has a tradition of producing raisins that stretches back centuries, with over 120 varieties on record. In the hills west of the city, growers still practice-farming methods that have changed little since the 14th century. Naser Jami, once a grower himself and now part of the Heart Raisin Presidium, is committed to raising awareness of the quality and diversity of their produce, working with the university and growers co-operatives to improve farming methods and bring an understanding of sensory analysis to growers and consumers across the province. Beyond Sweet and Sour At a taste workshop in Florence, Italy, Naser was introduced to the idea of using the 5 senses to analyze the food he ate. He took this knowledge back to Afghanistan and began working on a sensory scheme for analyzing raisins. His first draft was, he admits, basic; a simple grid that could be used to compare the 8 most common varieties on criteria such as flavor, appearance, and aroma using a simple ‘marks out of ten’ grading system. As part of the proposal to make the raisins a Slow Food Presidium, he presented this scheme to the Agronomy Faculty at Herat University, who were impressed with his innovative idea and asked him to take it further. Naser is currently working on a more complex system that goes beyond a numeric system and expands on simple tastes like ‘sweet’ and ‘sour’ to also include descriptors of consistency and utility. He hopes, eventually, to apply it to all 28 varieties grown around the city.Taste education’s place in the Global Economy Universities’ taste workshops are just one avenue of interest for Naser. If Afghanistan is to regain it’s place in the global economy, he argues, then the locals must realize how good their raisins are and how they compare to the industrial products of California and Turkey. He therefore plans to work on a simpler taste workshop scheme that will allow farmers to appreciate the diverse characteristics of their varieties compared to the homogenous imports they’re competing with. To this end he’s setup workers co-ops that will educate the growers about modern processing techniques, how to communicate the superior qualities of their fruit and allow them to club together to purchase a machine that can be used communally to process large quantities. Only once this is achieved can the growers hope to recapture the lucrative European and American markets lost during the Soviet wars of the 80s.SuccessThe farmers now have 10 stores spread across the city, selling tones of raisins every year. They are also continuing their collaboration with agronomy students from Herat University, who visit their farms to observe and share ideas, while having a practice vineyard of their own. So what motivates Naser? Is it simply increasing productivity and upping revenues? Not at all, he says. Farming has to be looked at holistically; of course, selling raisins is important, but appreciating the quality of what they produce, and recognizing its place in the culture of Afghanistan is equally relevant. He smiles as he remembers a book he found in the local library. In it, descriptions of local varieties, their methods of cultivation, and their importance as a cash crop, from 700 years ago reveal that very little have changed over time. “They mention a variety called ‘Rubies’, as precious as jewels” he says, “We still have this variety. One day soon, everyone will remember why it carries that name”
Location: Heart, Afghanistan
Terra Madre Community Members: 5
Producers involved: 1000
From the Terra Madre site