Milhous is my beef-up buddy. It will be his role to stiffen my spine and strengthen my resolve when I have a wobble in the Caucasus. For more than thirty years he has provided bracing advice and general bucking up every time my bottom lip trembles, wherever in the world I happen to be. Milhous is also my bulk-up buddy. He likes his tuck, and has pressed me to a pudding more times than it seems decent to report.
On vacation in the former Soviet Union in the year of Chernobyl (we travel well and widely, but not always wisely) we finished each day with ice cream, cake and champagne and tried to convince ourselves that an evening game of chess would work off the calories. Strangers to Cyrillic script, we quickly came to recognize the shape of the Russian word for restaurant. We pronounced the word as “pectopah” and made sure to try a new one every day.
At my “soft landing” resort this week in Armenia, all the signs are in Armenian, English and Russian. Seeing Pectopah yesterday, I resolved to have an extra plate of everything on offer in honor of Milhous.
Milhous is particularly partial to soup. He’d be happy here. So far, I’ve had a delicious yogurt soup with barley, and a lentil soup made with beef stock. I passed on chicken soup with rice yesterday, and missed last night’s bortscht. (Milhous is tutting, but there will be more beetroot soup in my future.) At lunch today, I had a vegetable soup with yellow split peas.
The soup is served with lavash, a paper-thin bread. The salad bar always has beets and grated carrots. Twice I have enjoyed Aveluk, a kind of sorrel, native and particular to Armenia. Like collard greens, it can’t be eaten raw, but is delicious boiled, seasoned, cooled and served with yogurt. Yogurt, sometimes with dill, is offered as a savory supplement at every meal. So is cheese, white and salty. I am delighted to say that fried potatoes also feature a lot–breakfast, lunch and dinner. Tonight’s dinner delights included an eggplant salad, and a side dish of beetroot tops. Delicious.
It would be ridiculous to opine about a whole nation’s cuisine based on two or three days at one hotel, but here are my findings so far: local Granny Smith apples are the size of grapefruits. Grapefruits are pink. There are a wide variety of cloudy fruit juices and lightly carbonated drinks that are not made by those global brand name companies that dominate everywhere else. One fizzy drink is flavored with tarragon. It is a terrifying shade of green. I liked the herbal flavor but found it too sweet to drink.
Back in Washington DC, I have been lucky to spend time with the food writer Marian Burros whose books feature many Armenian recipes. Chances are, you won’t be able to find aveluk in a store near you, but you could do worse than check out Marian’s books and do some Caucasian cooking, wherever you are in the world. Raise a glass to Milhous as you clean your plate.