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Barev, Armenia! / What I Ate in Armenia.

Betty Londergan / Writer, author, blogger.

 When I told people I was going to Armenia with Heifer International, the most frequent response was, “Wow, um.. where is that?”So first, the geography lesson: Armenia is just east of Turkey and bordered by Georgia to the North, Azerbaijan to the East, and Iran to the South. Which basically means Armenia is a raft of Christianity in a sea of Muslim countries. In fact, Armenia was the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion in 301 AD, and that has pretty much defined and shaped its turbulent history through the ages.

Armenia is a mystical place — filled with monasteries, pagan temples, prayer stones and churches, most tucked away in wildly remote places to protect them from destruction. (It didn’t.) These pockmarked Christian monuments are the pride of Armenia as well as testament to a seemingly endless parade of invaders: conquering Persians, rampaging Mongols, invading Turks, totalitarian Soviets, as well as the ravages of devastating earthquakes. For over 600 years, Armenians knew themselves to be a distinct people and yet were not a sovereign country. Faced with hostility from all sides, Armenians held fast to their identity and managed to survive into the modern era with a faith as deep and constant as the obsidian stone that is part of this beautiful landscape.
Although the Kardashians are undoubtedly the world’s most famous Armenians, they are not typical of the Armenian character (sorry, Kim) — although I did see an awful lot of beautiful women in the modern capital of Yerevan. Actually, it’s a bit hard to get a firm grasp on the Armenian character because it’s full of such deep contradictions.

Armenians are enormously proud, highly educated (with a literacy rate of almost 100 percent), and hospitable beyond your wildest expectations. In centuries of life along the Silk Route, Armenians became known for their business savvy in commerce and trade, and they interacted easily with almost every European and Asian culture. But Armenia’s psyche is indelibly haunted by the memory of great loss (1.5 million annihilated in 1915 alone) and like all the Caucasus’s states, the people have experienced centuries of brutal conflict that staggers the imagination and continues today in the convoluted conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabagh.

Armenia was a part of the Soviet Socialist Republics for more than 70 years, and has only been independent for 21 years. Armenia’s economy was far more robust and productive under Soviet rule, and the country is still struggling to establish a modern economy with almost no natural resources (and with its two borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan closed). While the capital of Yerevan is bustling, elegant and thriving, in the countryside there is little besides subsistence farming to support the villagers and the poverty rate approaches 35 percent. Many men still immigrate to take jobs in neighboring countries; in fact, three times as many Armenians now live outside the country as inhabit it. That’s why Heifer is investing $3.7 million in projects to help the smallholder farmer in Armenia achieve economic independence and food security — and what I came to see.
Despite the economic challenges, Armenia is hardly depressing. For one thing, the country is beautiful. The food is incredible, and though the people are tough (they’ve had to be) they are also joyful, sweet people who love to garden, to eat, to talk and to welcome visitors — particularly if you’re one of the 8 million diaspora Armenians who’s coming back home.
Even their blooming Christian cross never features the crucified Christ, because Armenians believe in the rising– not the suffering.
And that’s as good a prescription for moving forward as anything I can imagine!
Follow Betty Londergan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/blondergan
What I Ate in Armenia.
 by Betty Londergan

If you want to know what it feels like to be a goose on its way to becoming fois gras, I can’t think of any better place to go than Armenia. Right now, I am so stuffed full of great food, I feel like I should be spread on some dark rye bread and downed with a nice reisling … but let’s let the photos do the talking.
Actually, it’s impossible to feel bad about how much you’re eating in Armenia, because the food is so deliciously fresh and unadulterated….and because every Armenian is going to tell you with earnest conviction that whatever you’re eating is “really good for your heart,” no matter what you’re shoving in your face.
It’s ALL good for you …
“Eating local” is an understatement here. Everything you’re imbibing is probably five minutes out of the garden or orchard or barn, and you’re literally going to break somebody’s heart if you don’t accept a third helping. And why would you want to do that? You’ll probably never eat this good again.
I could (usually) resist the cakes and sweets – but only because I was taking in about 45 pounds of fructose a day in the form of a glorious cornucopia of peaches, plums, apples, grapes, figs, melon, pomegranates and dried fruits of every sort.

See what I mean?
Unfortunately, apricots were not in season– which caused terrific sorrow in my hosts as the superiority of Armenian apricots is a matter of national pride here. (They wouldn’t even let me take photos of the substandard remainders of the harvest.)
(Lackluster apricots have been removed from this photo.)
Dairy also figures prominently in every meal and is lusciously fresh and  homemade– whether it’s butter, cheese, regular yogurt or squeezed yogurt (hugged yogurt, I liked to call it), which looks exactly like a big heaping helping of sour cream and tastes amazing, even if my lactose intolerance caused me to skirt that bowl every time.
Fresh hugged yogurt is on the left, in the parfait glass!
I can’t leave off talking about food without discussing Armenia’s legendary, proprietary barbecue – which is nothing like the slathered, ketchupy sides of beef you see in the American South. Instead, the meat is marinated in a lot of fresh herbs, plopped on a firewood grill and grilled to perfection, which makes it (you guessed it)… really good for your heart!
Oriental coffee is thick as syrup and will be served to you (whether you’re overcaffeinated or not) every place you stop, with a big heaping bowl of fruit and some version of cake. But when the Armenians get down to it, meal-wise, they’re going to be serving lahvosh (watching them make it is amazing!)
And cheese. And tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and pickles. And meat or fish with a generous handful of purple basil, dill, oregano and cilantro to sprinkle on top. And potatoes. And cabbage slaw. And olives.
Trout fresh from the river next door — the last bite!
Armenians love food… they love to grow it (every house has a grapevine draped over the entrance and at least a few fruit trees surrounding the terrace)… they love to cook it and they love to eat it, surrounded by friends and family. Perhaps it has to do with the terrible starvation and privation Armenians suffered during the genocide of 1915, but the one thing I can tell you for sure – this culture is all about food. And Heifer is all about helping them to grow and raise more of it. (And I’ll all about deeply, profoundly appreciating it.)
As they say in Armenia, “Anushlini!” – Let anything you eat be sweet to you!

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