Eurasianet corespondent Marianna Grigoryan's recent piece about hypermarket chain Carrefour's struggle to break into the Armenian market because of a group of oligarchs' control over the food supply chain, provided a fascinating glimpse into how rotten politics can impact the most mundane daily chores, such as shopping and cooking. Interested in hearing more about this story, I sent Marianna a list of followup questions. Our exchange is below:
1. What made you think about reporting on this subject?
When nearly six months ago it was announced that Carrefour is coming to Yerevan, many people were curious to see if that at least will happen. In Armenia, where in many spheres there is the heavy existence of monopolies, Carrefour’s possible existence became some kind of question of principa. I was excited, as were many others, to have Carrefour in Yerevan as a competitive hypermarket next to Yerevan's existing two or three supermarket networks. But at the other side speculations started as expected and severak months later there is still nothing exact – only Carrefour's “Opening soon.” So I decided to write about the situation in light of a story I had already started about Armenian oligarchs. 2. In general, where do Armenians shop for their food?
In general in Armenia, especially in Yerevan, the biggest network of supermarkets-hypermarkets is 'Yerevan City,' which belongs to the pro-government oligarch Samvel Aleksanyan, a member of parliament who controls sugar, flour and other spheres of food import and dictates the “prices.” For example, officially 99.9 percent of sugar imports and domestic sales belong to his family. There are also two other supermarket networks but they have been mostly empty in recent months. 3. Do you think Armenians are looking for the kind of shopping experience a Carrefour would offer?
As the situation in Syria continues to spiral downward, a growing number of members of the country's historic Armenian community are seeking refuge in Armenia. Reports the New York Times:
The flight of Syrian Armenians — one of many lesser-noticed ripple effects that could reshape countries well beyond Syria’s neighbors — is raising questions about the future of Syria’s diversity. And it is forcing Armenia, which depends on its strong diaspora communities to augment its otherwise scant geopolitical heft, to make delicate calculations about whether to encourage their exodus or slow it.
For now, Armenia is hedging its bets. It is sending aid to Armenians in Syria, helping them stay and survive. But it is also helping them come to Armenia, temporarily or permanently, by fast-tracking visas, residency permits and citizenship.
“Our policy is to help them the way they tell us to help them,” said Vigen Sargsyan, the chief of staff to Armenia’s president, Serzh Sargsyan.
About 6,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Armenia as fighting engulfs Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, where an estimated 80,000 of Syria’s 120,000 Armenians live. More arrive each week even as a few trickle back, unable to afford Yerevan or stay away from houses and businesses they left behind unguarded in Syria.
Meanwhile, as the Armenia Now website reports, some of those refugees -- from the city of Aleppo -- have opened a restaurant in Yerevan, hoping to keep a taste of home while they're away from Syria. From the site's story:
Are elected officials in Yerevan trying to take any local color out of the city's food scene? That certainly seems to be the case. Last year, the city's mayor issued a ban on street vendors -- many of them fruit and vegetable sellers -- in an effort to "clean up" Yerevan. More worrisome for Yerevan residents, it now looks like local leaders are turning a blind eye while the city's well-known indoor market, the now shuttered Pak Shuka, is in danger of being demolished by a businessman cum politician who reportedly wants to turn it into a supermarket.
In a detail-rich report, The Armenian Weekly lays out the whole sordid tale:
There are many cities whose name is associated with great barbecue: Kansas City, Memphis, Austin, to name a few. But what about the Armenian town of Akhtala? Located in the country's Lori province, the town hopes to put itself on the global BBQ map by hosting its third annual barbecue festival, on Sept. 18. More details here.
If you think dolma (or "tolma," as pronounced in Armenia) is simply grape leaves stuffed with rice, a visit to Yerevan's "Tolma Festival" might be in order. The event, which is being run as part of the current "Golden Apricot" film festival, certainly seems to add a whole lot to our understanding of what dolma/tolma can actually be. Among the varieties on offer (via ArmeniaNow.Com): "bean-leaf tolma (Artsakh), pumpkin unfecundated flower wrapped tolma (Lori), raspberry leaf tolma (Tavush, Sevan) and Lent tolma with rice (Dilijan)." One purveyor is offering fish dolma, wrapped in strawberry leaves. Another claims to have found an ancient recipe for dolma written in cuneiform:
Chefs say that they find many recipes in archives, even in cuneiform records, such as the recipe of the Erebuni tolma.
The Afrikyanneri Pandok restaurant chef says they got the Erebuni tolma recipe from the Erebuni museum in Yerevan. He says they adapted it to our own days and present it anew. This tolma variation was known still in 782 BC in the fortress city founded by King Argishti, the son of Menua. The recipe was in historical archives.
“It is made of chicken meat, mushrooms, string cheese, nuts. We serve it with mushroom and walnut sauce. We also present the Taron tolma. It was a dish on the tables of the Mamikonyan royal dynasty. This tolma is of sliced beef tongue, we serve it with cherry sauce. In the ancient times all tolmas were sliced. And we have an old Bayazet Lent tolma with rice and vegetables, we serve it with Cornelian-cherry sauce,” says Antinyan.
ArmeniaNow.com recently published a great feature about an extended Yerevan family that has cornered the market on khash, a traditional Armenian dish made out of boiled tripe and the lower part of a cow's leg. From the article:
Since the 1990s, the seven families of Vardanyan brothers who reside in 154 Mashtots Street are the initiators of this business that has become something of a tradition. In the town, it is well known as “khash district”.
Hasmik Makaryan, 53, wife of one of Vardanyan brothers (Arayik Vardanyan), says that her mother-in-law started their business, and later they – the daughters-in-law and their husbands continued it.
“This is how we earn money. We have all got education, but we needed to live, to survive somehow, therefore we started this khash business. People were telling our address so often that as a result the name of our district has become ‘Khashi Tagh’,” Hasmik says.
The brothers’ houses are next to each other. If Arayik does not have the product a client wants, then he sends him or her to Vardan’s house, and if Vardan does not have it, then – to Rafik’s house, and so on.
More details about this true cottage industry here.
The online edition of the Armenian magazine Ianyan is running a two-part series featuring images of "traditional" Armenian foods taken by photographer Liana Aghajanian. Among my favorite images is that of a roadside stand selling homemade wine in old Coke bottles. The photos can be found here.
For those who haven't read it yet, Marianna Grigoryan's Eurasianet story about the disastrous apricot harvest in Armenia this year, is well worth checking out. The story is dramatic enough, but I asked Marianna if she could explain a bit more about the apricot's place in Armenian culture. Below is a short q&a with Marianna about her story:
Why did you decide to write this story?
The apricot is something special for Armenians and during the harvest in June and July it brings to the motherland many Diaspora Armenians who come to taste the sunny Armenian apricot.
As in late March it was announced that the apricot trees were damaged very much, I was following what will be in June and July. When I went to the market in early June, I was surprised very much: my daughter Sophie, who is 6-years-old asked me to buy some apricots and when I asked the seller how much it costs I was shocked! The most expensive fruit in Yerevan was Apricot! The prices were incredible. I asked the seller is this serious or a joke to have so fantastic a price on Armenian Apricot?
One woman near me who was also shopping compared the price of the apricots with bananas and complained to me that the bananas are coming to Armenia from so far are still cheaper than the apricots grown in Armenia. "You can keep your apricots in a museum," she told the seller. Other people near me who came to buy some fruits joined the conversation and told me that this year no one will buy the apricot. Everyone was angry about the prices and the situation. What a bad year they said. Every year something else happens.