Yesterday was a two-soup sort of day. Snow on the ground, frost in the trees, and a bone-chilling fog which hung around damply.
The first bowl of soup was offered upstairs–part of my family’s desperate mission to expose me to every Armenian culinary delight before I go back to the land of burgers and Twinkies.
Tan soup is a bowl of hot buttermilk to which is added a mix of chopped herbs, and finely chopped shallots fried in butter. Raw garlic, not so finely chopped, is sprinkled on top, together with square inches of dried lavash. It is eaten at breakfast time and is homey and satisfying without having the heaviness of khashil. I heartily recommend it for days when you plan to stay home breathing only under a blanket.
After the soup, I spent some time with 14 year old Natali who will perform in the National Poetry Recitation Contest in a couple of weeks’ time. Natali is reciting the lyrics of a modern Irish folk classic which has some resonance here–young men in Armenia must join the army after school and dying for their country is presented as a noble sacrifice.
Please help me through the door
Though instinct tells you no.
We were practicing the English th sound , which is difficult for most Armenians. Unfortunately for Nata, saying th requires the speaker to blow out softly while relaxing the tip of the tongue just below the front teeth. Nata recoiled in horror from the garlic stench as I ran thoroughly through the thoughs and thous, and shared my thoughts throughout.
I spent the rest of the morning brushing my teeth. Then I picked up an odd number of flowers (even numbers are unlucky) from our local florist (the poor woman was exhausted after a week featuring the days of both St Valentine and St Sarkis, the international and homegrown patrons of passion) a gift for the second soup-maker of the day.
Rita is my work friend Anna’s mum. Rita and I could be sisters and despite our language differences we recognize each other as kindred spirits. I was thrilled to get an invitation to spend the afternoon with her at home.
Anna was raised in a village about 20 minutes from Goris. Samson, another work colleague, drove us there, with Anna’s ten-year old daughter Mariam in tow. I noticed that despite the freezing fog Samson rolled his window down a little. I wished I had some chewing gum.
Rita lives with her husband, her mother in law, her son, his wife and their two kids, both under ten. The age span in the house runs from 7 to 79 and she is in the middle.
Roma, Rita’s son has actually only just moved back in. For most of his children’s lives he was working in Russia as a mechanic, sending home money every week to feed his family. Now, daring to hope that fortunes may change in Armenia, he and his dad have bought a plot of land, built a garage,and dug a mechanic’s pit. They did all this work themselves, so they have reason to be proud of it. We drove through the frozen mud to visit the garage ,and see Roma at work on a car for one of his first local customers. He didn’t have time to join us for lunch.
Lunch at Rita’s reminded me of similar meals at my Gran’s when I was a child. Giant amounts of comfort food, proper china and everyone around the table talking at once. Rita always make Anna her favorite soup when she visits. This was a tomato-based broth made with wild sorrel (aveluk) and dried plums. Lentils and potato gave it body, and the taste was both bitter and sweet. I liked it, but not as much as Anna did. There were two chickens, roast potatoes, green beans with egg, a beet and red bean salad, a pepper salad Anna had brought, cheese, bread, lavash and probably some other items I missed. We drank juice made from homegrown raspberries and toasted each other with cognac.
The kids had left the table by the time the cake, popcorn, chocolate, dates and fresh fruit were served. We had coffee at the table and then tea by the fire. Rita picked a lemon from the tree in the corner of the living room and sliced it to add to the black brew
Anna and one of her 2 sisters lay against each other on the sofa and bickered with their dad. It could have been my own family, except Anna and Meline are thin with enviably long legs.
A neighbor– everyone said she was crazy– pottered by to sit by the stove with Anna’s gran. The cousins– four of them by now–showed off their English to me, and practiced karate moves before disappearing into another corner of the house. Ruzan, Roma’s wife washed the dishes.
“Do you want nuts?” said Rita after we took some photos “biscuits?”
When I said I might never eat again Rita tasked and went off to prepare a to-go bag for me and Anna.
“Come back” said Rita. But that was before the garlicky good-bye kissing. I hope I see her again soon.