Herat is the third largest province in Afghanistan, located in the western part of the country. It has a valuable architectural heritage and has long been an important center for the arts and sciences, with a rich tradition of music, calligraphy, painting, astronomy and philosophy.
The area is well known for the excellent quality of its raisins and for the numerous grape varieties – more than 120 – whose cultivation goes back almost five hundred years according to the Arabic calendar. The history of Herat’s grapes is shrouded in mystery, but it is hypothesized that around 2000 BC they may have been grown by a nomadic people who spread across Central Asia during this era. Before the Soviet-Afghan War started in 1979, Afghanistan had accounted for 60% of Abjosh raisin production worldwide, and was the country’s largest crop. Today there are 44 types of grapes registered, seven of a superior quality.
With the help of the University of Herat, the Herat Abjosh raisins Presidium has analyzed and classified 27 grape varieties according to their shape, color, consistency and use. The Fakhery grape variety, used to produce Abjosh raisins, is unique to Herat and Kandahar. The fresh grapes grow in white or pale pink and can be eaten as table grapes or used to produce Abjosh raisins.
The grape-training system is the same method that has been used for five centuries. It is well suited to the geography and climate of Herat. The grafts or cuttings are planted in trenches 1 meter deep and 60 centimeters wide stretching east to west. The southern edge of the trench gradually disappears and the soil forms a wall pointing toward the south, making a right-angled triangle against which the vine will lean. The vine will continue to grow at this angle. Only natural fertilizers and pesticides – such as sulfur – are occasionally used, and only in small quantities. August and September are very sunny and hot months that bring out a very high sugar percentage in the grapes, up to 18%, just before harvest. The harvest begins in early September and lasts three months.
Before starting the drying phase the berries are dropped into boiling water for a few seconds in order to slightly crack the skin without damaging the inside of the fruit. The process is called “abjosh”, from which the raisin gets its name. This speeds up the time needed for the fruit to dry. The grapes are then placed in the sun for up to six days. Unlike other raisins dried in direct sunlight, this variety remains light in color, turning golden, and remains tender. The raisin is large and elongated, and the seeds are still present inside the dried fruit.
The aim of the Presidium is to identify the best grape varieties, preserve the Abjosh raisin, and preserve the traditional grape-training system. While there are many grape growers in this area, most have stopped producing unique local varieties and grow more common varieties that have a lower quality. Over the course of 30 years of war, Afghanistan has lost its place as the world’s leading producer of high-quality and very distinct raisins.
The Presidium involves 31 producers that are working together to write a production protocol in order to ensure a consistently high-quality product. The next step will be to improve local and international markets for the raisins by working with the producers. Slow Food works with the University of Herat and the Perennial Horticulture Development Project (PHDP) based in Kabul. The aim of the PHDP is to increase agricultural income from perennial horticultural development.
31 Fakhery grapes and Abjosh raisin growers and the trader