Do you like picnics? Barbecues? Sure you do. If you live in the world of gourmet supermarkets, supermercados, supermercati or similar food meccas, you’ll find everything you’ll need, all hygienically packed and wrapped — beautifully manicured cuts of meat, triple-washed salad greens, freshly made deli foods by the pound, pre-cut veggies and fruits. Etc., etc.
I didn’t know what a “real” barbecue was until I lived the expat life in Armenia, land of the khorovats, extreme barbecue. Now that I live in France where barbecue is popular if not of Biblical proportions, I long for a traditional Armenian barbecue. Let me tell you about one such an Armenian eat fest, but be warned, this story is . . .
Not for the Squeamish!
Along with several of our Armenian friends, we’ve been invited to a khorovats-picnic at the dacha of a business acquaintance. The dacha, or summer house, is located in the country.
Dacha: Are you thinking that dachas are fancy summer houses of Russian politicians and rich business types, somewhere along the Black Sea? Well, yes, they can be that. A dacha can also be a more modest structure, say a ramshackle cottage, or a rusty old fuel tank, the kind that is used by gas stations. You didn’t know this? Neither did I, so don’t feel bad.
It’s still early when we arrive at our destination, a bucolic plot of land mostly taken up by an unkempt orchard and a garden overrun with weeds and wild flowers blooming in lush profusion. The scene looks lovely and serene, giving no warning to things un-serene yet to come.
The dacha is of the rusty fuel tank variety. It is divided in two rooms, one with a small fridge, the other with a bed.
There is electricity and a water spigot outside. This dacha has a history: It was once used as a domik, to house people left homeless after the devastating earthquake of 1988.
You’re Wondering About the Facilities?
Me too. I discover them further afield amid the wild flowers: an outhouse with a hole in the ground. Two of the walls consist of a blue tarpaulin, flapping cheerily in the breeze and possibly offering interesting views of what goes on inside.
At the dacha preparations are underway to feed some twenty people. A member of the host’s family offers us homemade yogurt to hold us over till the real food is cooked. Our help is not needed, so my man finds someone to discuss business with and I take off to forage in the orchard for fruit. And that’s when I notice the car driving up. Someone opens the trunk. I see what’s inside.
Oh, no . . . .
And if you are thinking I’m seeing grocery bags full of victuals purchased at a supermarket, you would be wrong.
There’s a live sheep in the back, a filthy animal, its legs tied. It’s dropped on the ground under a bush, where it squirms around and chews on some grass. What a sad spectacle. (Please don’t write me about becoming a vegetarian, I know, I know . . . .)
I turn away, and entertain myself talking to Anna and her son Davit. He’s an adorable five-year-old, all eyes and ears, skinny and super bright. He loves playing un-serene war games with toy tanks and toy soldiers. Davit also takes karate lessons. He demonstrates some moves for our entertainment.
To See or Not to See
Then I catch sight of a young man with several knives in his hands looking down on the poor sheep under the tree. Davit is taken away further into the orchard by his mother. I follow her, not wanting to be a witness to slaughter. Not much later as I walk back, I see the sheep hanging by one of its legs from a tree trunk. Its head is gone, its neck a bloody stump dripping blood on the grass. (I’ll spare you the photo.) The young man starts his work, taking off the skin, and I am outta there.
Two men are doing the manly thing and start a fire in the barbecue. Women, doing the womanly thing, are washing and cutting up tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, readying them to be barbecued as well. Skewers the size of fencing rods appear. I keep walking back and forth to the butchery scene, wanting to see and not to see.
Finally, the Butchery is Over
Hunks of meat and fat, and what looks like various intestinal stuff and organs are cut up and put onto skewers and placed on the fire. The first load is the liver, kidneys and spleen and once they’re roasted we’re invited to have a piece of this coveted fare. I tell them I’m saving space for the rest of the meal. Which is the truth, really. I mean I’m an adventurous eater and all, but I’m just not that hungry yet. To accompany the first of these lusted-after bites, a toast is made with vodka or brandy. I take a small glass of brandy and sip it carefully. I know how many more toasts are ahead of me. This is, after all, Armenia.
Next the actual sheep meat is put in a big cooking pot with salted water and somewhere in the orchard a fire is built where the meat will cook for several hours amid the gentle swaying wild flowers. Yes, I know what you are thinking.
Armenians do not prefer barbecued lamb if there is a choice. Pork is what they want on the fire. Fortunately no pig is slaughtered in front of us and the meat arrives already butchered. Enormous chops and other chunks of pork are skewered and placed on the barbecue along with chunks of aubergine/eggplant alternated with hunks of sheep’s fat.
How to Set the Table
First you have to have a table, and this takes creativity. The table available is a creaky metal thing that is not big enough for us all, so someone rustles up an old door which is propped up with a wooden box and a crate full of empty soft drink bottles. Many hands busy themselves draping a motley collection of cloths over the table and covering benches with blankets and throws. Rickety chairs are added, and voilà, there’s room for everybody to sit. Then the plates, glassware and cutlery come out, a symphony of colors and sizes. I love this sort of making-do. It feels so . . . authentic, don’t you think?
Finally, the food arrives. The host’s son is newly married and his bride is rushing back and forth like she runs on batteries, her face expressionless, poor thing. Don’t worry, one of our friends tells me, she’s earning her points as the new daughter-in-law. As is the custom, she and her husband live with her in-laws.
The table is full of dishes – pork, bread, peeled roasted tomatoes, fresh tomatoes, dishes of salt, cut up lemons, and of course the usual forest of bottles.
Everybody takes a turn in between chewing mouthfuls of food. Toasts to the glories of Armenia, the glories of friendship, to the beauty of the women, the health of the children, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum. This is, after all, Armenia.
We eat pork, we eat vegetables. We sit around for a while enjoying more toasts and more drinks. There’s time between courses so I get up and wander around the orchard to help digestion and play a little with Zen contemplation. How interesting is my expat life in Armenia. How lovely to live in the moment right now. How peaceful.
I stroll over to join Anna and little Davit, who is sitting in the grass. Rather un-Zenfully, I manage to crush a collection of cut flower heads under my feet, but no problem: The blooms represent soldiers in a war orchestrated by Davit – the purple clover blooms were the bad guys, the white flowers the good guys. The war is over and all are dead, even more so now that my feet have stomped all over them. As I said, not all is serene here in the countryside.
What about the boiled sheep meat, you wonder? Here it comes: shapeless hunks heaped on big plates.
The meat has been cooking for several hours and is falling off the bone. I try not to think of the pathetic look in the sorry sheep’s eyes as I eat it. It is quite tasty. We sit around some more, offer up more toasts, drink more vodka, brandy or wine.
Enough now, you’re thinking? Oh, no, this is an Armenian khorovats, so . . . .
Here Comes the Fish!
The fish: Barbecued whole trout. A bit on the dry side – the fire maybe too hot. We are all stuffed. I am toasted out, brandied and vodka-ed out. But the party is not over yet.
Here come the apples, the peaches, the cherries, the water melons, followed by a box the size of a coffin full of bakery pastries. Enough, you think? Certainly not.
Ice cream cake! A big one! And we MUST have some. Coffee arrives. Thick and muddy, the way it is supposed to be here in Armenia.
Finally, my prince and I roll out of there. I am tired, full, finished. Man, oh man, this is what you call a barbecue.
Such a wonderful day we’ve had, a true Cultural Experience with friends and food. Such a lovely setting, such peace and quiet spent among the fruit trees and the flowers.
Yes, such an idyllic place, but in the course of this day a sheep was slaughtered and five-year-old Davit fought a war where all the soldiers perished.
Note: All photos are mine
* * *
Do you have an extreme food story? Or an interesting barbecue story?