The natural conditions of Armenia, its location and weather, are major contributors to the delicious cuisine found within its borders. Yet, it is the return to the agricultural practices of the grandfathers that is creating a renaissance in the culture of food in this Land of Noah.
It is said that Armenia is where Noah’s Ark landed and where the Garden of Eden was found by Adam and Eve. One can imagine the beauty of the Biblical paradise when traveling through Dilijian, one of the loveliest areas of this high plains country. Located between Lake Sevan and the Lori region, two hours outside of the capital city of Yerevan, Dilijian’s deep alpine valley is a paradise during the spring and summer. The hills are covered with wildflowers, a myriad of migratory birds nest in the tall meadow grasses, while butterflies and bees swoop and hum over the verdant landscape. Mountain streams overflow with melting snow from the peaks of the Halab Mountains, creating waterfalls and bosky pools.
Though many regions of Armenia have the look of an ancient Garden of Eden, only four percent of Armenia is devoted to agriculture today. This decline is because, in part, Armenia had a small but important position as a provider of fresh fruit and vegetables during the Soviet era. Its natural waters, bottled at the source, and distributed throughout the Soviet Union were well known. An ancient technology for producing beer from hops (Roman soldiers were said to have tasted beer first in Armenia while patrolling its borders), as well as the advantage of high quality grapes to make fine brandies, gave Armenia its reputation as a source of excellent alcoholic beverages.
But during the years of occupation, much of Armenian agriculture became industrialized, emphasizing products unique to the region and desired by the rest of the Soviet system. It was only when the USSR collapsed that farmers were forced to return to pre-industrialized agricultural methods in order to provide for Armenia’s own needs. Though the years since 1991 have been a struggle, it is one that has allowed Armenia to reevaluate its farming methods.
With help from outside interests and Armenians willing to preserve traditions, Armenia agribusiness is finding a balance of ancient and modern techniques to ensure fine food production. It is possible that with the return of a vital economy, the reality of an agricultural paradise will be realized.
When the Vikings were discovering America, Armenia was ten times the size it is today. Urartu, as it was then called, was a country of city-states, many launching explorers into the Mediterranean and Caspian Seas from ports of their own, as well as sending adventurers overland into the Middle East and Asia.
It seems likely the ‘Marco Polos’ of Armenia discovered agricultural techniques as well as plants, new to their shores, and brought them home. In a country that had the advantage of a wide range of botanical environments, from semi-desert to high mountain plains, forest and seashore; where almost every man was a farmer, ancient Armenia must have been a place where the newest and latest agricultural ideas were explored.
The travels of the ancient Urartuan may well account for the rich variety of fruits and vegetables that exist here today. Certainly, the many years of being a crossroads of the Caucasus gives Armenia a special position in the cultivation of the agricultural treasures of the region. For a country now only the size of the State of Maryland, Armenia has a remarkable number of fruits that are grown within its boundaries. Several types of peaches, apricots, plums, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, mulberries, gooseberries as well as melons abound in the marketplace all summer long. In the fall, five or six kinds of apples and pears, as well as quinces and late-blooming plums, vie with grapes and pomegranates on market shelves. ‘Heirloom’ seeds, common two generations ago or more, are finding there way back into commercial gardens.
Vegetables that are found fresh daily in the large town and city markets are often picked early in the morning to be sold by afternoon. Short distances from field to table make available ripe tomatoes, shiny, black eggplants, pale green zucchini, hardy broad beans and sweet corn. Carrots, beets, cabbages, onions and potatoes, at their best in the summer, are often the only vegetables to be found in the winter, stored in cool cellars to be offered when nothing is growing. It is definitely a seasonal marketplace here in Armenia!
Salad ingredients, including cucumbers, celery, green onions, garlic and a variety of lettuces and spinach are also available daily along with herbs that are among the best in the world. Basil, tarragon, cilantro, parsley, dill and sage are common, intense in flavor, and rival their counterparts anywhere. Many varieties of fruits, vegetables and herbs are dried and preserved, ready for the dearth of winter. It is not uncommon to see drying racks on the balconies of city apartments or canning being done in the kitchens of sophisticated Yerevanians.
Armenia has become, out of necessity, a ‘slow food’ country. Economically stricken when the USSR collapsed, men and women who had once held top jobs in local companies, were senior educators in the national school system, or had played a significant part in the industrialization of the country under the Soviets, were now out of work and living a bad dream of 19th century life—on the brink of the 21st century.
Many turned to the grandparents for help in those dark days of freedom. A generation of office workers was able to pick up the skills of their ancestors to make money for their families or to feed them from small kitchen gardens and farms that grew up everywhere in the 90s. Without the means to buy chemical fertilizers and insecticides, these new ‘Mr. McGregors’ went back to methods used before the invention of DDT.
Due to the interest and diligence of agri-entrepreneurs, cheese and wine production, not encouraged during the Soviet era, is now competitive in world markets. Herb teas, with many types famous for medicinal qualities inherent in the flavorful plants, abound as an international export. Fruit juices and canned tomatoes and tomato paste, shockingly flavorful compared to what many of us are used to, are sold without additives or enhancements. The quality of all agricultural products meeting new market standards is excellent.
The lessons of recent hard times have proved a boon to an agricultural community eager to join the international world of agribusiness. The value of the “slow food” methods brought back out of necessity but looked upon as a plus in a world interested in the benefits of organically grown products is obvious. It is creating a new position for this country no bigger than some of the vast wheat fields of the Ukraine or Kansas. The result is a cuisine rich in natural tastes and flavors, so good, in fact, that it might make you think you have never eaten so well in your whole life…
Bronwyn Dunne, an American food professional, lives and works in Verevam, Armenia