One of Those Best Meals I Ever Ate Moments
t’s hardly surprising – given that I spend half my life traveling around the globe, and the other half being asked to pontificate on the culinary preparations of great chefs – that the question I get asked most recently is, “What is the best meal you have ever eaten?” My answer changes, depending on my moods. But, it has included a “picnic” shared with strangers in a cramped train carriage on a journey between the Moroccan cities of Marrakesh and Fez; a gourmet introduction to Filipino cuisine, prepared for me by legendary chef, Claude Tayag, in Pampanga, Philippines; and a soulful plate of “thiébou dieune” ( fish and rice) eaten from a communal platter while sitting cross-legged in a courtyard in Rufisque, Senegal. These meals, and many others, all bring back fond memories.
Now, they have been joined by a more recent interloper, experienced in the unlikely setting of a cave in Armenia. Yes, you read that correctly, a cave in Armenia.
The meal in question came towards the end of a three-week sojourn to the region of the Caucasus. By the time we reached Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, we were already convinced that this region was deserving of more time in the culinary spotlight, and what we experienced throughout this extraordinarily hospitable country served to confirm it even more.
On one of our early trips away from the capital, we had been fortunate enough to be given a tour of the Areni-1 Wine Caves, an archaeological dig that is uncovering the earliest known wine-making facility known to man, dating from some 6,000 years ago. We were still talking about what we had seen when our guide indicated to our driver that we should pull off the road into a small clearing, and announced to us that this was where we would be having lunch.
There was nothing much there, apart from a few benches under an awning to protect them from the sun and the rain, to suggest that this was going to be a premium dining location. Our guide led us across a small gurgling spring into a cool cavern where we met the owner, Vardges. He explained that “The Cave” was the result of years of plentiful hard work as he and his family cleared the wild undergrowth to reveal what was now the location of their kitchen and a small elevated private dining area.
In one corner of the cave, two women worked at a wooden table, chopping ingredients for a salad and spraying dried lavash bread with water to soften it so it could be served with our meal. Vardges himself worked at another table, carefully sprinkling, salt, pepper and paprika onto meaty chunks of lamb on the bone, before impaling them on skewers with onions and potatoes. These khorovats, or grilled meats, would be cooked at the blistering heat of 330 °C for around fifteen minutes in a tondir (an oven built underground similar to an Indian tandoor), while we enjoyed the traditional appetizers that had been laid out for us.
Vardges ushered us towards a short ladder that led up to the private dining area. It was a tiny space with low stools that promised little comfort. But, as soon as I saw the spread that had been lovingly presented on a wooden table, I knew that this was going to be a meal to be remembered, whatever the circumstances.
As we had already discovered on our travels, while the more traditional farming techniques still used in the Caucasus may provide some challenges in terms of variety, the lack of “big agriculture” defnitely has had a positive effect when it came to the quality of produce, which by default had to be seasonal in availability and locally sourced. In fact, as Vardges explained through our guide, much of what was put before us was grown by the family themselves.
There must have been at least fifteen different dishes on the table waiting for us. As well as the re-hydrated lavash, there were assorted cheeses, including a traditional string cheese laced with nigella seeds. There were plates of fresh meaty tomatoes, green peppers and cucumbers so dense they could barely be equated with supermarket versions you might find in the U.S. There were jet black olives, roasted vegetables and hot sauce with pickles that had a balance of sharp and sweet that I have been trying to recreate (unsuccessfully, I might add) since I returned home. Best of all, there was a bowl of thick, creamy and tangy matzoon, a sour dairy product, similar to yogurt, that seems to be at the heart of so many Armenian meals.
The matzoon was served with a large mound of assorted fresh herbs, which included dill, tarragon, basil, parsley, wild oregano and mint, as well as a small number of fresh green onions, which like the herbs, had also been harvested that morning. As instructed by our dining companions, I began to fashion a roll comprised of a handful of herbs and onions, a layer of string cheese and a plentiful dollop of the matzoon. The first bite, which delivered an amazing combination of the freshness of the herbs, the saltiness of the cheese and the tang of the strained yogurt, was enough to convince me why Armenians like to begin every meal this way.
So taken was I with these hand rolls that I almost forgot about the lamb, which had been brought sizzling to our table. That would have been a shame, as it was every bit as delicious as Vardges had promised us.
I added some of the lamb to the rolls of herbs, cheese and matzoon. The sweet, crisp and charred lamb fat gave way to the meat below, which dribbled juices onto my chin as I dug in. It was a bite that confirmed everything that we had been excited about during our journey to the region, and one that confirmed that a meal in a cave in The Caucasus would go straight into the top whenever when people next ask me, “What is the best meal you have ever eaten?”
LAMB KHOROVATS WITH LAVASH, HERBS & YOGURT
(Serves 4-6), Recipe by Simon Majumdar
- 6-8 inch metal skewers
- 3 lbs lamb leg or shoulder, cut into 1 ½ in cubes
- 2 lemons (one juiced and zested, the other cut into lengths for garnish)
- 2 tsp paprika
- 2 tsp salt
- 2 tsp ground black pepper
- 4 tbs olive oil
- 4 large potatoes, quartered
- 4 large white onions, quartered
- 4 sheets lavash, rehydrated
- 1 bunch ea; mint, Italian parsley, tarragon, dill and basil
- 1 bunch green onions, trimmed of roots
- 3 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 12 oz matzoon
- ¼ cup melted butter
- 3 tbs cold water
Notes: You can substitute pork shoulder for lamb, pita bread for lavash, and Greek yogurt for matzoon. Also. use wooden skewers if you do not have metal, but please do remember to soak them in water first, so they don’t burn.
- Combine the lemon juice, olive oil, salt, paprika, and pepper in a large bowl. Add the lamb cubes and massage well with the mixture. Cover and allow to marinate for at least one hour.
- When you are ready to cook, start by impaling the lamb on the skewers, adding chunks of onion or potato after every two cubes.
- Finely chop the dill and whisk into the matzoon (or yogurt) with three tablespoons of water and minced garlic. Sprinkle with the lemon zest and leave in the fridge until ready to serve.
- Grill the lamb skewers over medium heat for approximately five minutes per side — this can be done on an outdoor grill, stove-top skillet, or even under the broiler. You want the lamb to retain its juices still, but to have a little char on the outside. While the lamb is grilling, brush the lavash (or pita bread) with a little of the melted butter and grill on indirect heat for one minute per side.
- Once the lamb is cooked, remove from the skewers, along with potatoes and onions, and cover with foil and allow to rest for at least fifteen minutes.
- When serving, place a selection of herbs onto the lavash. Top with green onion and then with cubes of lamb, and pieces of the grilled onions from the skewers. Drizzle with plenty of the matzoon (or yogurt) and finish with a squeeze of lemon. The potatoes can be served as a side dish.
For more delicious reads, pick up a copy of Fed, White, and Blue: Finding America with My Fork by Simon Majumdar, published by Avery Publishing Group April 2015.