A Traditional Treat in an Armenian House – Kars Province, Artvin, 1897

A Traditional Treat in an Armenian House

Below is the story of the inspector of the Batumi City College about how he had lunch in a rich Armenian house in the town of Artvin, Kars Province, the Caucasian governorship of the Russian Empire (now in Turkey).

The table was set for nine people, and the hospitable householder before dinner treated us with a soft drink of cherry syrup. The drink was offered already poured into glasses. A woman carrying the syrup bowed low to everyone. Household members raised their hands upwards, then placed them on their foreheads and exhaled in chorus: “Anush” (“to health”).

Such a wish after each toast to each person is pronounced by everyone sitting at the table. Having washed hands in accordance with the Eastern custom, each one took a spot at the table. The abundance of food and drinks was amazing. The whole table was littered with all sorts of snacks and wines, including mulberry vodka.

Among the appetizers were smoked meat, sausages, pickled cucumbers, cheese of three varieties – Kurtin, Ardanucho-Shavshet, and Hamshen kinds – olives, fresh onions, fish, boiled eggs, pickled greens called “Yakh” – which I’ve never eaten before – cold sliced lamb meat (ghaurma), “satsebeli”, a sauce made from vinegar, crushed large nuts (with oil squeezed out of them beforehand), and spring onions, and, finally, braised beet leaves seasoned – except for the crushed walnut and vinegar – with pepper and garlic.

Here was a layer cake (“pakhlava”) as well. Simply put, you had plenty of things to eat with vodka! But as it turned out, it is not customary to limit yourself to just one glass.

“And now goes the second!” offered the “tamada” (the toastmaster).

I decided to reject with gratitude, but the inexorable toastmaster again insisted on the third one… After a hearty snack, it would be fit to consider the meal finished, but the host was so entreaty for me to stay at the table that there was no way to refuse his request. To get up from the table before the end of dinner without drinking the prescribed number of glasses of wine is considered an insult not only for the owner but for everyone at the table.

The first dish was a kind of a shchi (most likely, it was “krchik”, a distant relative of the Russian soup. And it is made from sauerkraut. But unlike shchi, it contains wheat cereal and tomato paste), then arrived “dolma“. This dish is basically chopped meat with rice wrapped in grape leaves and poured with fine Artvin oil.

The next dish was fresh beans (“lobio”) with eggs and butter and seasoned with cilantro, which is used here in the preparation of almost every dish, especially in fasting dishes. Then was served roasted meat with a side dish comprising of boiled beans and baked apples.

This was followed by pilaf with chickens and raisins, poured with fresh butter. Up next was “gupta” – minced meat with eggs, something like meatballs, only smaller. Then came milk porridge.

“Lord!” I cried out involuntarily, “When will the end of all these dishes come?”

“Don’t you want to try our kebab?” the toastmaster asked, “You did come to get acquainted with our way of life, and you will be embarrassed if you can’t even describe how kebab looks when asked whether you liked it or not.”

Considering the argument reasonable, I got acquainted with the new dish.

Kebab, like the Georgian shashlik, is roasted meat sprinkled with parsley and onion. Toasting in its own juice in the cooking process, kebabs are really delicious. It would be even tastier if it was served as the second or the third dish rather than the seventh.

However, this wasn’t enough for the Sunday dinner: soon, the daughter of the housewife brought a new dish – the “korkot”. This dish in the form of thick porridge is brewed from wheat grains and is called “korkot” if served without oil and meat. Otherwise, it is called “harisa”.

Having tasted the last dish, I prayed for a respite and used the provided pause to inspect the kitchen, with the condition that I would later at least take a look at the final sweet dish and finish my lunch with tea.

In the kitchen, the fireplace hosting fire for the food preparation amazed with its size. In one of the fireplace’s corners were several iron trivets that served as replacement for a stove. In the other corner was tondir, a cylindrical clay vessel buried in the ground. In this tondir, a big fire is started on each Saturday, and flat doughs are attached to its red-hot walls for baking. The cooled-down coal isn’t removed from the vessel.

Coming out of the kitchen, I noticed that a group of women, seated around the copper table, were eating some kind of stew from a cup. Here, it should be noted that local dining tables, copper or wooden, are called “supra”. They have no legs, but in the middle, there is a 3-4-vershok (5.25-7-inch or 13.3-17.8cm) stand. The everyday spoons are wooden, but there are also copper spoons, which along with the faience tableware are intended for guests.

Returning to the table, I was amazed at the changes that took place on it. Now, it looked completely different and had anything you could imagine on it! It contained sour milk, “shekherlam”, “tatarburagi”, “halva”, “asuta”, “kotmer”, “pakhlava”. Sweets of various shapes and colors were prepared, in general, from the same products: flour, honey, sugar, butter, and eggs. Other dishes – “gevreg”, “bishp”, and “demurishi” – resemble pancakes.

Having finished, thank God, with the food, we, at the invitation of the owner, moved into the garden and sat down on the carpets with numerous pillows and mattresses on the thick green grass. Tea was served, but sugar was nowhere to be seen. The daughter of the hosts was roguishly laughing while the owner himself was silent. I could not stand it and asked for sugar.

“It is in front of you!” the host answered.

“But where? I do not see it,” I wondered.

“Try to drink the tea with ‘bekmez’,” – suggested the owner, pointing at it.

Bekmez turned out to be a lovely thick syrup from mulberry. In terms of sweets, it was not inferior not only to sugar but even to the sweetest honey. I enjoyed drinking two glasses of tea with him.

Kars province, Artvin, 1897

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