The winters in Armenia can be harsh. Even in the relatively warm Ararat valley, the temperature sometimes goes as low as -38 degrees Celsius. Therefore, the population has always thoroughly prepared for winter. For example, they baked and stocked up on lavash (Armenian flatbread) for the entire winter. Stocks of dairy products, cereals, legumes, and meat were also made.
Armenians usually had churns in their bread houses (“hatsatun”, literally “bread house”). Over the decades, even the poorest families had at least one cow or several sheep, so a churn was necessary. There is evidence that churns have been used in Armenia since the times of the Kingdom of Van (Urartu).
The Armenian churn (Armenian: “hnotsi”) is an oval-shaped wooden or clay vessel with a hole on the top, through which the milk was poured in. The churn is designed to be swung. The swinging results in butter (Armenian: “karag”) building up on the walls of the vessel. Such butter is called “hnotsi karag” (“churn butter”).
Inside the churn remained buttermilk called “tan” in Armenia. The butter was removed and heated up to obtain clarified butter, which was then cooled and put in jugs.
Chortan (“dry tan”) was prepared from the tan. To make chortan, salt was added to the tan. Then, the mixture was let sit for some time for the water to separate. The water was then drained and given to the cattle. This water was nourishing, and the peasants were quite thrifty. The remaining dried tan was rolled into balls and then dried further.
Armenians also made milk soup. It was prepared like this: matzoon (Armenian fermented milk), chortan, or decanted matzoon was diluted with water. A tablespoon of flour per liter of liquid and an egg were added. This mixture was then well stirred and cooked on low heat. During the cooking, the matzoon and egg needed to be constantly mixed to prevent lump formation. Wheat groats or rice were added to the soup and cooked as well.
Then, some onions were chopped finely, fried in butter, and added to the soup. Herbs like mint or coriander were added as well, dried in winter and fresh during the rest of the year.
Armenians also ate cheeses made from cow, sheep, and goat milk all year round. However, the main meal of the peasants was cereal from wheat groats. There have been several types of groats like farro and bulgur.
Boiled, dried, peeled, and crushed wheat is generally called “dzavar” (“groat”). Slightly wetted, peeled, and dried wheat is called “blghur” (bulgur). Farro is simply crushed wheat.
Dishes from legumes (peas, lentils, beans) and pumpkins also occupied a special spot among Armenian dishes.
Meat was prepared for the winter as well. Meat was made into sudzhuk or basturma.
Ghaurma is another famous meat dish. To prepare it, wealthy peasants used beef, while not so wealthy peasants used lamb. The meat was separated from the bones, cut into large pieces, cleared of blood via copious salting, and then boiled and fried. Then, the meat was cooled, placed in jugs, and poured with melted butter.
Such a procedure basically made canned meat. This meat was stored in the cold. Some peasants buried the jugs with the meat in the ground. It was enough for housewives to cook porridge and add a little of this meat to it to make a hearty lunch.
Pokhindz – flour made from roasted wheat – was also frequently used in the Armenian cuisine. It was used to prepare a dish called “khashil”, as well as sweet cutlets. Pokhindz was mixed with honey or grape juice for a sweet flavor.
Herbs were harvested for winter as well, including cilantro, mint, tarragon, basil, thyme, as well as garlic and onions. There was also a green called “aveluk” which was dried and plaited for storage.
In winter, aveluk was cut into small pieces, soaked in water for several hours, and used in making lentil soups. Alternatively, it was simply boiled and served with matzoon and garlic.
Special attention was paid to fruit. In those times when there was no jam, the fruits were just dried. Usually, apples, pears, plums, apricots, and peaches were cut into slices, strung on threads, dried, and hung in bread houses for storage. Cherries were usually let dry on their trees. The peasants collected them after drying.
On long winter evenings, dried fruits were indispensable in the diet of the Armenian peasant. Hazelnuts and walnuts were a good addition to them. Particularly popular was aghandz, a mixture of toasted cereals like wheat, hemp, lentils, or peas.
The sweets of those times had a long shelf life. Armenian sweets included gata, a sweet cake with a filling; sweet sudzhuk, which is walnuts in grape juice; baklava with nut filling; alani, which is dried peaches stuffed with nut chips; doshab, medicinal syrup from mulberry; grape and apricot juice; and sour lavash from plums.
I wrote in the past tense because it was so many centuries and millennia ago. But almost all these foods are still very popular in Armenia, although Armenian cuisine is much richer and more diverse now.
Another popular antique dish is harisa, a porridge with chicken, where meat and cereals are boiled soft. Half a kilogram of chicken per cup of wheat groats is used to make this dish.
The chicken is cooked for a long time – usually, for one and a half or two hours until the meat is easily separated from the bones. Then, meat is cut into pieces. The broth is strained and brought to a boil, after which the chicken meat is added to it.
The wheat groats are then washed and added to the broth. The porridge is cooked until turning into a homogeneous mass. Salt and pepper are also added to taste.
Meat dishes were usually made by men, maybe because cutting animal carcasses required strength. Men thus transferred their skills from grandfather to grandson. Grandmothers shared their knowledge of herbs with their grandchildren. As soon as the first green appeared in the spring, the grandmothers and grandchildren went to the mountains. When collecting herbs, grandmothers explained their properties and taught the children to distinguish between edible and poisonous plants.
The peasants knew about 300 species of greens growing in Armenia. Pasus tolma (fasting dolma) is a dish made with greens that has been popular in Armenia for centuries. Now, it exists in several versions, including with grape and cabbage leaves. The leaves are stuffed with foods like beans, peas, lentils, and wheat groats. Pasus tolma is traditionally cooked for the New Year.