Russia, Through Pictures…

This past week I went to Russia with my girlfriend Sveta. Here are some pictures of our visit:

St Basil, Moscow

St. Basil Cathedral...

Ivan The Terrible, Russia’s infamous ruler, commissioned St. Basil in 1561. The structure houses nine churches on one foundation. The colorful spires pointing up are the church roofs, which were designed to look like candle flames. Once the structure was completed, Ivan The Terrible blinded the architect, as to ensure he could never build anything more beautiful. I wonder how he got his nickname…

Dog Nose, Moscow

Rub The Nose And Make A Wish!

Moscow’s subway is spectacular: built 60 metres deep underground, it’s stations are adorned with glistening chandeliers, intricate soviet-era mosaics depicting military successes, and even brass statues of dogs, whose noses you must rub to have your wishes come true.

I’ve been told there are a few stray dogs living in Moscow that take the subway to get around town. I wonder if they get a discount on the fare…

Off to St. Petersburg…

On The Train, Sharing A Meal With Our Neighbor...

Leningrad, now known as St. Petersburg, is a charming city north of Moscow. Built by Peter The Great only 300 years ago, its purpose was to increase Russian influence over Finland. The city is split in two by the Neva River, and is home to the massive Hermitage Museum. Built by Catherine The Great in 1764, the museum houses her vast art collection, which is estimated at 3 millions pieces.

The Hermitage On A Brisk Sunday Morning...

Menshikov Building, St. Petersburg

Menshikov's House...

While this building does not look too spectacular from the outside, it houses a great story: Peter The Great needed to leave St. Petersburg for a lengthy trip and called on his friend Alexander Menshikov to be the city’s mayor. In Peter’s absence, Menshikov built this mansion for himself using city funds and neglected his duties as mayor. When Peter returned and discovered what had happened, he came up with a brilliant idea: rather than fire or kill Menshikov, Peter declared that all future city-sponsored parties, galas and receptions will take place at Menshikov’s house!

So there you have it: Menshikov had to put up with years of parties inside his mansion without being able to relax and enjoy the home he built…

Inside the Church Of The Savior, St. Petersburg

The Walls And Ceilings Are All Made Of Tiny Mosaics...

This church was built as a memorial to Tzar Alexander II, who was assassinated by rebels in 1881. There are over 7,500 square metres of intricate mosaics adorning the church walls and ceilings. It’s quite a view…during the Soviet times the church was looted and left to decay. It was even at one time used as a warehouse to store potatoes…

Back to Moscow in Time for the Ballet…

Russian Champagne? I'll Take Two...

On our last evening, Sveta and I saw a ballet performance inside the presidential Kremlin. The performance was great, and so was the champagne. I searched around for Medvedev, but I couldn’t find him. My Wikipedia search revealed that he was a weightlifter in his youth, and liked listening to Deep Purple and Black Sabbath while in college. Cheers to that!

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Another Day in Yerevan: Stalin, Churchill and the Ararat Cognac Company

Earlier this week I awoke to my first stormy day in Yerevan. Lying in bed, I wondered what I could make of a day like this. Fortunately I did not have to think about it: my friend Sveta planned to visit the Ararat Cognac factory. This was a decision of pure genius. Read on to find out why…

The Visit

We soon arrive on the well-tended grounds of the Ararat distillery and meet our personal guide, Anahit. She escorts us to the cognac cellar, which was established in 1887. As I step inside, I see barrels everywhere.

 

Barrels In the Cellar

 

A heavenly whiff of oak and aromatic cognac tickles my nose. Anahit explains that I am smelling what is known as the “angel’s share”, which is the alcohol that naturally evaporates from barrels during the cognac’s aging process. Apparantly breathing it has anti-aging properties, as employees working here live long and happy lives. I think the angel’s share has gotten to me too: my cheeks have turned bright red and I feel great…even though I have not sipped a drop of booze!

Ararat cognac is made from five varietals of white grapes, grown in various parts of Armenia. Harvested in October, the grapes undergo a “charente”, which is the fancy French word for “double distillation”. The liquid is then transferred to barrels made of oak sourced from Nagorno Karabakh, a disputed Armenian republic near Azerbaijan. As a gesture of good will, the Ararat Cognac Company has crafted a special cask blend to be opened on the day when the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is settled. Now that’s a cause worth drinking to…

 

The Cask Of Peace

 

Ararat Cognac’s Crazy History

This distillery’s history is worth reading about. Soon after it’s founding in 1887 a bold Russian businessman named Mr. Shustov bought the production with the goal of exporting the cognac to the European cities. His marketing strategy goes like this: he paid young university students living in Europe to go and have lavish dinners at the fanciest restaurants in Paris, London, Rome, and Berlin. Their task was to ask for “Armenian cognac” as a digestif at the end of their meals. When the waiter replied that they did not carry any, the students would make a fuss and walk out, saying that they would not return unless such cognac was served. You can guess what happened…Armenian cognac exports began growing!

Years later Stalin and Churchill were attending the Yalta Conference, discussing what to do in the aftermath of World War II. During a stall in talks Stalin offered Churchill a glass of Ararat cognac. It was the Dvin blend, made from ten different cognacs and prepared by the Armenian master cognac distiller Margar Sedrakyan. Churchill liked it so much that he asked Stalin to send him 400 bottles a year (365 for himself and the remainder for his friends). A few years later Churchill received his usual shipment but, tasting the first bottle, noticed a difference in flavor. He immediately called Stalin to find out what had happened. Apparantly Stalin had just sent Sedrakyan to Siberia for unknown reasons. Upon receiving Churchill’s call, Stalin took a puff from his pipe and changed his mind: he recalled the cognac maker to his rightful place in the Ararat Cognac cellar. Years later, Sedrakyan made a special blend to commemorate his narrow escape from the icy Siberian gulags: He named it the Erebuni, and blended it at 57% alcohol rather than the usual 40%. The reason? To stay warm in case he got sent back to Siberia!

 

Sedrakyan, Master Distiller

 

The Tasting

Before we begin the tasting, Anahit explains that cognac itself is so pure that you cannot get drunk from it alone: “What gets you drunk”, she continues, “are the little devils that hang on the rim of the glass. So, you must cling your glass against another one to knock them off. If you do get drunk, it’s because a little devil fell into your glass instead of on the floor!”. And so we drank without restraint, clinging away the rainy afternoon. We sampled some delicious cognacs:

  1. 3-star single varietal: this is the youngest cognac available. A light body, full of oak and mulberry on the nose.
  2. Akhtamar 10 year blend: full bodied and smoky. Candied walnuts and dried cherry on the nose.
  3. Nairi 20 year blend: an intense cognac with dark chocolate on the nose. Pairs well with life’s important decisions.

 

Cognac Tasting...

 

On our way out, Anahit shares a famous saying from the soviet writer Maxim Gorky: “It is easier to climb up Mount Ararat than to get out of the Ararat Cognac cellar”. To that saying, I raise my glass…

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My Top 5 Favorite Armenian Words…

The Armenian language is full of the funniest-sounding words. In my month-and-a-half here I have had a few good laughs while discovering new ones. Here is a selection-along with pictures and brief descriptions-of my favorite Armenian words:

Having a Drink at the Bulbulag...

BUL-BUL-AG: It means “water fountain”. Yerevan has bulbulags on just about every street corner. The water bubbles up from the fountain when you turn the faucet on and makes splashing sounds…thus the name.

SILLY-BILLY: It’s my personal favorite. Silly-billy means “to flirt”. I’ve heard that the word comes from an American named Billy who was fooling around so much that his name is now associated with flirting. You can use it in the following way: “well hello beautiful…why don’t we go the movies and silly-billy with each other during the previews…”

A barbarag break...

BAR-BAR-AG: It’s the word for ice- cream. BAR means “cold”, AG means “thing”. So Barbarag literally translates to “cold-cold-thing”.

PIR-PIR-IM: This is a funny-sounding word, I know. It is a small weed that grows wild in Armenia. You can use the small leaves in salads, and the stems are pickled and eaten as an appetizer. I say pirpirim out loud it every time I see a little kid walking on the street. I love the surprised and confused look on their faces!

PAM-POUG: This means “soft”. The word pampoug makes me want to jump onto a heap of cotton and roll around in its fluffy softness.

Pirpirim

So, that’s it for now. I’m going to eat some pirpirim and barbarag, have a drink at my local bulbulag while watching youngsters silly-billy around, before cozying up in my pampoug bed for a good night’s sleep. See you next time!

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In-Flight Gourmandise: A Tasty Detour At 32,000 Feet

Today I left Armenia for a weeklong conference in London. While I will miss my customary Armenian breakfasts of deliciously undercooked eggs à la coque, with buttered lavash, black olives, sliced tomatoes, fresh farmer’s cheese, wild raspberry jam and Sissian honey, I have the good fortune of flying with British Midlands Airways: I’ve been upgraded to first class…this, in spite of my disheveled appearance (stained white tee-shirt, jeans steeped in last night’s cigarette smoke, wacky hair).

Being so lucky, I have decided that I must subject my body to the excessive luxuries that go along with the fully reclining seat. My taste buds are readying themselves for the gastronomic opportunity lying (high) up ahead.

So, I present you my first ever food review…at 32,000 feet. Bon Appetit!

Aircraft: Airbus A321.

Seat: 7D (…and 7F. my stuck-up neighbor saw my tee-shirt and moved somewhere else…).

Location: flying above the Black Sea.

Atmosphere: wealthy, overweight men drinking straight whiskey on the rocks. They seem to inhale their mixed nuts like anteaters, vacuuming up the crumbs with loud slurps and grunts. The stewardess begins taking their lunch order. They all order the steak.

My Meal

Wine

Chateau de Tignée “Les Maillones” Anjou 2008 produced by Gérard Depardieu, the famous French actor. It is a dry chenin blanc from the Loire Valley. Dried apricots, honey and granny apple on the nose and a lingering finish. I know there is more to this wine but the airplane’s recycled air is impeding any further olfactive explorations…

Wine & Olives

Amuse-bouche

Marinated olives in extra-virgin olive oil. Slices of crusty batard bread with rosemary and burnt sesame seeds. Nothing could be more predictable, but I will admit they are good. The bread is served with margarine, which is inexplicable to me. To my chagrin the olives have been pitted to avoid lawsuits and/or dental bills from passengers who are somehow unaware that olives naturally contain pits.

Main(s)

Ever since my very first childhood flight I have found airplane entrée portions far too small for the average bon vivant. I have thus informed my stewardess that I will be sampling two main dishes.

The Heavenly Haddock...

My first course is the smoked haddock fish with colcannon & lemon-herb sauce. The haddock is tender and moist, and has been smoked to perfection on cedar wood. The colcannon, an Irish purée made with potatoes, leek and cabbage is creamy and delicious. The sauce has a tangy lemon base and is spiced with marjoram and chives. My hat goes off to the haddock-it affirms itself confidently while allowing the mash to balance out its rough edges.

My second course is the lamb fillet with apricot couscous & a tomato-olive sauce. It is sadly way too dry and far too tough. I should have expected this. Who knows how many hours it had been sitting in the aircraft heating unit, being held at a food-safe temperature. My FAA-approved butter knife can barely slice through it. The fillet has the texture of thick Styrofoam. Just thinking about it gives me cottonmouth.

Lamb Fillet...

Dessert

The wine and cabin pressure knocked me out and I fell asleep during the dessert course. I am still upset…

See you next week!

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Young Sweet Grapes and Big Old Rocks…

Armenia’s south-eastern region is home to a sleepy town called Goris. I am here with Sveta, a Russian friend of mine. Goris is as quaint as a village can get. Its main street boasts a small café, a wood-fired lavash bakery, a church (of course…), giggling kids and old men playing backgammon. Upon our arrival the town is shrouded in a dense evening fog, which soon turns to a light mist that hangs in the air. A delicate aroma of ripe fruit hovers around: it is the smell of white muscat grapes grown nearby. The soil here is fertile, and we’ve arrived during the grape harvest. Farmers set up small stands on the roads around Goris, selling clusters of plump grapes, heaps of colorful vegetables and soda bottles filled with their home-made wine…

Grapes in Goris

The next morning we set out for a site called “Karahundj”, translating to “rock-breathe”. Our driver’s old Lada grumbles its way through the small dirt roads, taking us deep into the countryside south of Goris. We soon arrive at a hilltop, kicking up clouds of dust as we skid to a halt. As the haze dissipates, a majestic scenery emerges: a breathtaking collection of huge basalt rocks-over 200 in total-all elaborately arranged in a clearing just ahead.

Karahundj Stones

Karahundj Stones

The rocks are covered with faded shades of asparagus-green, white, and sepia-colored moss. The site dates back to 2,000BC and houses remains of ancient tombs. Researchers have not yet figured out exactly how or why these stones, some weighing over 10 tons, were brought here.

Constellation Viewing Hole...

Constellation Viewing Hole...

Some of the larger rocks have holes near their top edges. They were most likely used for astronomical observations because the openings act as viewfinders that help locate constellations. It is believed that one of the largest rocks at the site aligns with the constellation Orion on August 11th of every year, marking the first day of the grape harvest here…

Just as I am about to leave, two shepherds emerge with their herd of braying sheep. Their names are Samvel and Vartan, and they obligingly pose for a photo. I imagine their ancestors trekking through these lands for thousands of years, travelling by these same stones on their journeys past…suddenly the gentle breeze turns into a fierce gust. The wind sweeps through the golden valleys around us, whisking the brush into a symphony of hushed whispers. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and let the smell of damp hay overwhelm my senses…

Vartan and Samvel, Sheep Herders

Vartan and Samvel, Sheep Herders

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A Journey North: A Visit to my Uncle’s Village

A few days ago my uncle Haig invited me to his house, which is located in Yeghvard (spelled YER-VART…), a village just 20 kilometers north of Yerevan, Armenia’s capital city. The road out of the city passes through run-down apartment blocks and gaudy casinos operated by what seems to be the Russian mafia. But soon the view widens to reveal the countryside: vast fields of golden wheat, mounds of freshly stacked hay, bushes of burgeoning boysenberries, and gently rolling hills in the distance. Driving ahead, a group of Yezidi herders calmly usher their sheep off to the side of the road. The Yezidi living in Armenia are ethnically Kurdish, but came here in to flee Turkish persecution during the First World War. They follow a unique religious belief that is part Kurdish and part Islamic Sufi. They are known in Armenia as “sun worshipers” because they pray daily at sunrise and sunset.

The Road to Yeghvard...

We soon arrive in Yeghvard: it is a charming, sleepy community at the base of Mount Ara. The mountain’s barren, veiny bluffs offer a stunning backdrop to the town. Narrow, winding streets wiggle about in all directions like passageways leading into an ancient labyrinth. Our path eventually leads us to an old church, which lies in the town’s center. My uncle explains that the church dates back to 1301, and was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. I cannot help but notice striking carvings on the church’s brown stone façades: a leopard killing an ibex, an eagle gripping a baby lamb with it’s claws, a lion, a bull. While I have no expertise in Armenian Church symbolism, these carvings seem oddly pagan to me…

Old Yeghvard Church

Soon our stomachs begin to growl and we make our way to my uncle’s house to prepare a traditional Armenian barbecue called “Khrorovats”. Valod and Meshrop, two of Haig’s friends, join us and help get things ready. They use small branches of apricot wood to make the fire; according to them it is the best wood for barbecuing. The fire pit crackles and comes to life. They expertly skewer tender pork chops along with ripe tomatoes and whole onions on long steel skewers. The air is soon imbued with the heavenly smells of grilled onions. I watch gleefully as plump droplets of pork fat dive into the smoldering embers below, sending a flurry of ashes up into the sky…

Valod (left) and Meshrop (right)

A while later the pork chops are golden brown, and it is time to eat. A table is set in the garden, under the pleasant shade of an old walnut-tree. Our shot glasses are filled to the brim with Valod’s home-distilled Ori made from Haig’s garden plums. We toast to a life well-lived and tipsily chomp into tender morsels of pork, juicy tomatoes and charred onions. Between bites I stop for a moment and soak in it all in: life, it seems, doesn’t get much better than this…

The Grill...

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Hello From Armenia!

Parev Tsez,

St Gregory's Church in Yerevan

I have just arrived in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. It is a beautiful city almost entirely built of red and black tuff, a volcanic rock found all over Armenia. Yerevan boasts handsome city squares replete with monuments commemorating great writers, musicians, generals and artists. I am staying in an apartment near the central “Republic Square”, where Lenin’s imposing statue once stood. His statue is now gone, and a growing number of commercial banks are opening offices in old Soviet government buildings, offering Armenians credit cards, bank accounts and ATM machines.

The city is hot and crowded. Everywhere I turn I see babies. My flight here was packed to the brim with married Armenian couples and their adorable, babbling two-legged carry-ons. Moms walk like queens here. They stroll leisurely through Yerevan’s avenues with their heads high, gleefully flaunting their pride and joy to passersby. In the center of town cafés boast “new and improved” play areas for kids, equipped with swirling slides, monkey bars, and all. Fathers are proud, too. They trail a short distance behind, chain-smoking extra-thin cigarettes with Marlon Brando-esque intent and hard-boiled severity. Being the head of the household, it seems, does not allow for much smiling. Only stone-cold gazes and furrowed eyebrows will do…

Levon, Bread Baker in Yerevan

In my short time here I have made friends with an affable bread baker named Levon, and cooked a traditional Armenian breakfast of minced cow liver with sautéed onions, tomatoes, and freshly chopped parsley, paired with shots of a homemade plum eau-de-vie. In this mid-summer heat am drinking more beer than water and eating more ice cream than cheese. I have convinced a sweet woman named Anahid to teach me Armenian, and I am dead-set on finding some locals to play soccer with.

Enjoying a Beer with a Friend...

I am hedging here, but I hope my passion for food, language and sports will be the keys to my success in branching out to communities far and wide throughout Armenia. With that in mind, I should probably get back to my Kilikia beer, which conveniently sponsors the Armenian Olympic soccer team…

See you next week!

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