For many centuries, the tonir (an Armenian oven) was an integral part of peasant houses. Due to the round shape of the tonir, houses have also been made round. In the roof of such houses was a chimney (“yerdik” in Armenian). This chimney let the smoke out and at the same time let sunlight in.
Tonir is an oven in the form of a deep round hole in the ground, the walls of which are lined with stone. Tonirs were used for baking lavash (Armenian flatbread) and other flour products, for boiling, roasting, and cooking meat, dairy, and vegetable foods. They have been also used to smoke meat and dry fruit.
In ancient times, the tonir warmed the home. On cold winter evenings when the dinner was ready, the opening of the tonir was covered with a lid to keep the warmth in. The lid was covered by a blanket. Mattresses were put next to the tonir, and after having dinner, the family members lied on the mattresses, putting their feet on top of the tonir.
The tonir was also used to treat patients. Old people and children were easily falling asleep at the tonir. In settlements where there were no church buildings, clergymen had the right to conduct marriage ceremonies before a tonir. In pre-Christian times, the Armenian tonir was considered a symbol of the sun. When women were bending over the tonir to make bread, it was considered that they were bowing to the son.
Gradually, the tonir moved to a separate building called “hatsatun” (literally “bread house”).
My grandmother Takuhi had a bread house. It served as a kitchen and pantry. In one corner of the house was a tonir. Products were stored in the opposite corner of the room so that the heat of the tonir wouldn’t spoil them. Those products included cheese, butter, baked butter, boiled meat, green, dried fruits strung on threads, apples, pears, and plums. In the center of the room hung a wooden churn. Special “swings” for making lavash were there as well.
With great interest, I watched the process of baking lavash and bread in tonir. I watched my grandmother taking out the ready lavash from her tonir. Her assistant — one of her daughters — at that time was rolling out the dough and placing it on a special pillow shaped and sized like the lavash. The front part of this pillow was covered with a dense yet soft piece of fabric.
On the underside of the pillow, there was a wooden handle. Holding onto the handle, my grandmother lowered the pillow into the tonir and slapped the dough against the hot walls of the tonir.
By this time, her assistant had managed to roll out another ball of dough. Grandmother gave to her the pillow so she would place the dough on it. In the meantime, grandmother kept an eye on the lavash to prevent it from burning. Lavash is thin: it bakes quickly and can just fall down into the tonir’s pit.
Grandmother picked up the finished lavash with a metal bar and threw it on the towels spread around the tonir. In the meantime, her assistant was again placing a new dough onto the pillow. Grandma took the pillow and repeated the process… And so it continued as long as there was dough to bake.
During the baking, it was also required that the ready lavash lies flat and unfolded on the pillows. Each lavash bread needed to lie separately. Otherwise, lavash pieces would just stick to each other.
The aroma of freshly baked lavash would not leave anyone indifferent! “Somebody, bring cheese and give lavash with cheese to the kids,” said grandmother. Usually, my mother brought cheese and greens.
The fresh and already cooled lavash was cut into pieces. Mom wrapped cheese and greens in it and gave a piece to everyone who was at the tonir: to the observers, grandmother who baked lavash, and her assistant.
Baking lavash isn’t an easy task – it is a very time-consuming process. Growing up, I learned many details. Usually, the housewife gets up early to knead the dough. If the dough is kneaded wrong, it will not stick to the tonir. It will just fall onto the fuel and burn.
The dough is divided into portions shaped like balls. These balls are placed on trays and covered with a towel. The correct dough should stand and rise (i.e. ferment).
Once the dough balls have risen, the tonir is heated with dung, brushwood, or grapevine scraps. Around the tonir, the housewife lays out the towels on which the lavash will be laid. After the tonir has warmed up sufficiently, its internal walls are quickly cleared from soot. Then, the housewife settles on a pillow near the tonir – she will have to sit there for several hours until all the prepared dough balls are baked.
An assistant brings the tray with the dough and sits down next to the tonir. The process begins. The baking must be done quickly since the dough has already risen.
After cooling down, each baked lavash piece is placed onto a “swing” covered with a large tablecloth. All the lavash pieces are put on top of each other: since they are cool, they won’t stick to each other.
The “swing” with the lavash is then covered with the free ends of the tablecloth. While cooling down further, the lavash dries out. Lavash can be eaten dry, but you wouldn’t be able to make a sandwich with it.
Dry lavash can be softened. It just needs to be sprayed with water and wrapped in a towel. In ten minutes, it becomes soft.
Large batches of lavash are usually baked – for a couple of weeks or a month. When baking for winter, the lavash supply can be enough for the whole season.
Usually, the last two or three balls of dough aren’t rolled out. They are only slightly stretched. Baked, they make for a round bread. In Sisian, such bread is called “bombi.”
Food prepared in a tonir has a special taste because it is baked on the heat coming from wood fire. Food is placed in special clay vessels for baking in a tonir. Such vessels are called “putki”, “kchuch”, etc. The dishes are called likewise. Dishes other than lavash were usually baked in smaller tonirs. Aside from a larger tonir for lavash, every peasant house had a smaller tonir for other dishes.
Meat was usually baked in copper cookware of various shapes called “tapak”, hence the name of meat dishes “tapakats” (roasted).
Ghapama is one of the dishes made in a tonir. It is a pumpkin dish. The guts of the pumpkin are removed first. Then, it is stuffed with rice, butter, dried fruit, and honey. The pumpkin is then placed into the tonir for baking.
The words “to have breakfast”, “to have lunch” and “to have supper” in the Armenian language are replaced by the general expression “to eat bread” (“hats utel”). This phrase is used to denote not only bread but any other food. The word “bread” in this context means lavash. If you stay in a home where lavash is baked (or if you watched the baking), then the homeowners will likely treat you with lavash and cheese.