Summer in Azerbaijan means ripe, juicy watermelons, and what better to pair them with than some strong, salty white cheese and fresh oven-baked flatbread? Restaurant expert and foodie Natalia Golumb shares some simple and fancy variations on watermelon salad as well as the results of a rather unexpected flavour combination…
Right now, it’s watermelon season in Azerbaijan. This season lasts all the way until the end of August, and for me, watermelon is one of the defining tastes of summer. There’s something so idyllic about the combination of delicious strong white cheese, warm bread and juicy watermelons – so ripe they crack the instant you apply the knife to them. Mmm.
Over here, temperatures in summer can soar up to 36-42°C during the daytime, so in weather like this, there are times all you can handle are watermelons and cheese. But it’s also a special pleasure during the weekend to walk to the beach and grab a watermelon from a big lorry full of the ripe fruit while on the way. Add to this some hot bread straight from the tandir oven (so hot it burns your hands) and share all of this on the beach together with friends or family.
In my humble opinion, the most delicious and juicy watermelons in Azerbaijan come from Sabirabad, an agricultural city to the southwest of Baku, situated at the junction of the Araz and Kura rivers. The combination of the region’s soil, climate and river water running across fields dug in neat, narrow trenches creates the perfect environment for watermelons. There are even watermelon specialists there, who taste the soil (yes really) and advise on whether or not the field in question is ready for watermelons to be planted.
There are plenty of recipes with watermelon, and so many different taste combinations you can pair them with – so here I share two of my favourites, as well as a little kitchen hack.
Simple variation: Watermelon and Cheese salad
You will need:
Watermelon (cut into cubes)
Your favorite white cheese (such as feta)
Fresh mint (chopped)
Black sesame seeds
Choose melon and cheese quantities to taste
When pairing with watermelon, you can use different types of white cheese. Classically in Azerbaijan we use motalcheese, which is quite hard and has a strong taste, made from goat, sheep or cow’s milk and traditionally kept in goat or lambskin. During my travels, I have not come across any other cheese quite like it. If you use motal, simply crumble it over cubes of watermelon, sprinkle with the sesame seeds and add some fresh mint to finish this simple and beautiful symphony of flavours.
If, as may well be the case, there is no Motal cheese available in your country (or you don’t like its strong taste), you can use any white cheese of your choice – I personally like goats milk robiola or sometimes feta.
I haven’t provided any quantities for the ingredients in this salad as it’s a moveable feast and you can choose how much of it you want to eat.
Serve it with freshly made lemonade or a glass of ice Pinot Grigio. And of course, try it with tandir bread, or a nice oven-baked flatbread of your choice.
Elegant variation: Salad with watermelon, ricotta cheese and beetroot reduction
250 grams watermelon (cubed)
4 tablespoons ricotta cheese (cubed or crumbled)
5 tablespoons beetroot juice
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons balsamic reduction/syrup
Spinach leaves (to taste)
Orange zest (to taste)
Poppy seeds (to taste)
Lime zest (to taste)
Begin my preparing the sauce. To do this, reduce the beet juice in a saucepan until it is about a quarter of its original volume. Then add sugar and stir gently until dissolved. Remove from the hob and allow to cool, before adding the balsamic reduction and mixing well.
In a bowl, place the watermelon and ricotta along with the spinach.
Pour over the sauce, sprinkle with poppy seeds and the zest of the orange.
Enjoy with a glass of light rose!
Kitchen hack: Watermelon with a lavender aroma
Once I decided to make lavender syrup out of some lavender I had collected at a friend’s country house in Mardakan, on the coast. I cooked the syrup in the evening and when it had cooled down, I put it in the refrigerator in an open vessel. It just so happened next to it was half of a watermelon.
The next day, when I took out the watermelon and sliced it up for guests, everyone started commenting on the interesting aroma my watermelon had. I tried it and laughed, because the watermelon smelled of lavender! Just imagine my surprise at this accidental discovery. Try it! It’s an interesting combination. Well, I mean, do be careful when storing open containers in the fridge as watermelon does absorb other odors very easily – but lavender syrup works deliciously!
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