If I had to sum up Armenia in one word, I think it would be “miserable“.
I don’t want to be unfair or to offend any Armenians out there but …
To be fair, Armenia has had a shit history, to say the least. The people have been massacred. They have lost territory to Turkey and, on the face of it, are sitting ducks. It is a poor nation which would have suffered financially when the Soviets left. Yes, they got their culture and religion back but … at what cost? There are half-finished Soviet hotels left to rot and towns that used to have 20,000 people now have little more than 1,000. Everywhere, buildings are deserted, left to decay. The landscape is further tarnished with horrid Soviet concrete blocks of flats that the government doesn’t have the money to renovate. Public squares and public gardens in regional towns have been overtaken by weeds and ornamental ponds are covered in slime. In rural areas, there was barely a young person to be seen.
OK, this is only one side of the story. Armenians are very religious people. They are rightly proud of their faith and traditions. Yerevan, the capital, did have a positive vibe. Public buildings were well maintained and there were young people out and about.
So what does Armenia have going for it?
Number one, Armenia has a lot of churches on hills. Alas, probably more than could hold my interest but they were striking, nonetheless. Notwithstanding my lack of religiosity, it was disheartening to see the damage done and obvious lack of respect by the Soviets to buildings that mean so much to Armenians. I guess, there is no easier way to break a people’s spirit than destroy their religious icons.
Number two and much closer to my heart, Armenia has a wonderful tradition of preserving fruit.
And now for some upbeat foodie photos of a poor, besieged country…
Our first stop in Armenia was the wonderful Haer B&B in the town of Meghri (I could have stayed the night but we only had time for lunch – a church on a hill must have been beckoning). We had lunch under huge pear trees laden with fruit. (I noted that there were no birds attacking the fruit which I did find disconcerting.) And I had a beer. Wine would have been nicer but I was not complaining. The beer went down well after a fortnight in alcohol-free Iran. There were fruit trees everywhere. They even had fruiting kiwi fruit vines.
Of course, I was interested in the drying fruit. We were surrounded by it. I love the idea of preserving the summer harvest.
Glacé fruit, anyone? The GUM Markets in Yerevan were a sight to behold. The stalls were absolutely gorgeous, although I did note they were not particularly busy. Anyway, I was in glacé fruit heaven. I walked around and around trying to decide what one thing to buy.
Eventually, I decided on the walnut and fruit leather roll. The one I bought was rolled up like a Swiss Roll. It is nearly pure walnut inside but there is something in there that keeps it together. Maus and I can’t work out what – maybe grape juice? Maus looked them up on the ‘net. They may be called Tuhtoo Lavash but we are not too sure.
Because of the border conflicts with Azerbaijan, you are not allowed to take anything from Armenia into Azerbaijan. As a consequence, I intended to eat my roll whilst in Armenia but it turned out to be way too filling to have more than a wee bit at a time. I hadn’t finished it by the time I arrived at the Azerbaijani border so I smuggled it in. And I still haven’t finished it. Maus and I had a piece today.
I don’t know what is inside these guys but, geez, they look pretty. I am guessing it is a nut and fruit paste – which is what was inside everything else.
These are walnuts threaded on a cotton string and then dipped in a mixture of grape juice and cornflour. They are the same as Georgian Churchkhela – more on them in my next post. For now, I will say they are very nice and I reckon are doable at home.
This is Armenian string cheese. At first, when we saw it on a table, I was not sure what it was. Of course, I tasted it. I tasted every single thing I did not recognise. All I can say is that Armenian string cheese must be an acquired taste. Note the soft cheese in the background. That was nice.Here is a pickle store. I didn’t actually try many pickles whilst I was away. I don’t know why because they were served most days. I guess I figured I knew what they would taste like. Check out the pink garlic and cauliflower. In Lebanon, they have pink turnip pickles on every table. When there, it took me ages to work out what it was and how they did it. It turned out to be very simple, the vegetables are cooked with beetroot.
More pickles but, more importantly, a lady on her smart phone. Smart phones are just as popular in the Middle East as they are everywhere else. Everyone, and I mean everyone, was taking selfies in Iran. The mountain of white stuff draped with carrot is pickled cabbage – they make an interesting display.
These ladies were making bread at the restaurant where we stopped for lunch. The lady on the left would roll out the bread and then throw it to the lady on the right. I tried and tried to get a mid-air photo but I just couldn’t do it.
She would then lay it out on her cushion and throw it into the oven. Check out how thin this bread is. I tell you it was very, very yummy, too.
We also watched a guy in Iran make similar bread but which looked like honeycomb. The oven was very similar but the walls were patterned like a honeycomb. I guess the bumpy texture holds more sauce.
To finish on a positive note: this young woman and her friend have opened up a café/bar in Dilijan, the regional town in Armenia which suffered the massive reduction in population I mentioned above. They perceived a need, there was no where for young people to hang out in Dilijan. The benches, tables and chairs in the café are repurposed ex Soviet-factory furniture. Young enterprising people like these are Armenia’s future.
I wish Armenia well.