Expat Foodie: Extreme Barbecue at the Dacha

by missfootloose on September 2, 2012 · 20 comments

in Armenia, Culture and Customs, Expat foodie, Food

A car drives up. Someone opens the trunk. I see what’s inside. Oh, no . . .

Do you like picnics? Barbecues? Sure you do. If you live in the world of gourmet supermarkets, supermercados, supermercati or similar food meccas, you’ll find everything you’ll need, all hygienically packed and wrapped — beautifully manicured cuts of meat, triple-washed salad greens, freshly made deli foods by the pound, pre-cut veggies and fruits. Etc., etc.

I didn’t know what a “real” barbecue was until I lived in Armenia, land of the khorovats, extreme barbecue. Now that I live in Moldova where barbecue is not elevated to magical heights, I long for an Armenian barbecue. Let me tell you about one such an Armenian eat fest, but be warned, this story is . . .

Not For the Squeamish!

Along with several of our Armenian friends, we’ve been invited to a khorovats-picnic at the dacha of a business acquaintance. The dacha, or summer house, is located in the country.

Dacha: Are you thinking that dachas are fancy summer houses of Russian politicians, somewhere along the Black Sea? Well, yes, they can be that. A dacha can also be a more modest structure, say a ramshackle cottage, or a rusty old fuel tank, the kind that is used by gas stations. I didn’t know this either, so don’t feel bad.

It’s still early when we arrive at our destination, a serene plot of land mostly taken up by an unkempt orchard and a garden overrun with weeds. Our host, Mr. A., has been indisposed and not been able to keep the place up, much to the enjoyment of wild flowers, which are blooming in lush profusion. It all looks lovely and serene, oblivious to things unserene yet to come

The dacha is of the rusty fuel tank variety. It is divided in 2 rooms, one with a small fridge, the other with a bed.
Armenian summer house

There is electricity and a water spigot outside. The dacha has a history: It was once used as a domik, to house people left homeless after the devastating earthquake of 1988.

Further afield the facilities are located, an outhouse with a hole in the ground. Two of the walls consist of a blue tarpaulin, flapping cheerily in the breeze and possibly offering interesting views of what goes on inside.

We are offered homemade yogurt to hold us over till the real food is cooked and we take off to forage in the orchard for fruit. And that’s when I notice the car driving up. Someone opens the trunk. I see what’s inside. Oh, no . . . .

And if you are thinking I’m seeing grocery bags full of victuals purchased at a supermarket, you would be wrong.

There’s a live sheep in the back, a filthy animal, its legs tied. It’s dropped on the ground under a bush, where it squirms around and chews on some grass. What a sad spectacle.

Khorovats sheep


I turn away, and entertain myself talking to Davit. He’s an adorable five-year-old, all eyes and ears, skinny and super bright. He loves playing war games with toy tanks and toy soldiers. Davit also takes karate lessons. He demonstrates some moves for our entertainment.


To See or Not to See

Later I see a young man with several knives in his hands looking down on the poor sheep under the tree.

Davit is taken away further into the orchard by his mother. I follow her, not wanting to be a witness to slaughter. Not much later as I walk back, I see the sheep hanging by one of its legs from a tree trunk. Its head is gone, its neck a bloody stump dripping blood on the grass. (I’ll spare you the photo.) The young man starts his work, taking off the skin, and I am out of there.

A fire is started in the barbecue. Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants are washed and cut up ready to be part of the feast. Skewers the size of fencing rods appear. I keep walking back and forth to the butchery scene, wanting to see and not to see.

Hunks of meat and fat, and what looks like various intestinal stuff and organs are cut up and put onto skewers and placed on the fire. The first load is the liver, kidneys and spleen and once it’s roasted we’re invited to have a piece. I tell them I’m saving space for the rest of the meal. Which is the truth, really. I mean I’m an adventurous eater and all, but I’m just not that hungry yet. With the first of these delicate bites, a toast is made with vodka or brandy. I take a small glass of brandy and sip it carefully. I know how many more toasts are ahead of me. This is, after all, Armenia

Next the actual sheep meat is put in a big cooking pot with salted water and somewhere in the orchard a fire is built where the meat will cook for several hours.

Armenian picnic lamb


Armenians do not prefer barbecued lamb if there is a choice. Pork is what they want on the fire. Fortunately no pig is slaughtered in front of us and the meat arrives already butchered. Enormous chops and other chunks of pork are skewered and placed on the barbecue along with chunks of aubergine/eggplant alternated with hunks of sheep’s fat.


Armenian barbecue


Let’s Set the Table

An extreme table is made ready, an old metal thing that is not big enough for us all, so an old door is added on and propped up with on old box and a crate full of empty soft drink bottles. A motley collection of cloths are draped over the table, and benches are covered with old blankets and throws. Rickety chairs are added, and voila, there’s room for everybody to sit. I love this sort of making do. It feels so . . . real.

The food is brought to the table. The host’s son is newly married and his bride is rushing back and forth like she runs on batteries, her face expressionless. Don’t worry, one of our friends says to us, she is earning her points as the new daughter- in-law. As is the custom, she and her husband live with her in-laws. This is, after all, Armenia.

The table is full of dishes – pork, bread, peeled roasted tomatoes, fresh tomatoes, dishes of salt, cut up lemons, and of course the usual forest of bottles.

Let’s Toast!

And then comes the toasting. Everybody takes a turn in between bites. Toasts to the glories of Armenia, the glories of friendship, to the beauty of the women, the health of the children, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum. This is, after all, Armenia

We eat pork, we eat vegetables. Then we sit around for a while enjoying more toasts and more drinks. There’s time between courses so I wander around for a bit, then join my friend Anna and Davit. I manage to crush some cut up flower heads under my feet, but no problem: The blooms had been soldiers in a war orchestrated by Davit – the purple clover blooms were the bad guys, the white flowers the good guys. The war is over and all are dead, even more so now that my feet have stomped all over them.

What about the boiled sheep, you wonder? Here it comes:  shapeless hunks heaped on big plates.

Armenian picnic
The meat has been cooking for several hours and is falling off the bone. I try not to think of the stupid look in the sorry sheep’s eyes as I eat it. It is quite tasty. We sit around some more, offer up more toasts, drink more vodka, brandy or wine.

Enough now, you’re thinking?  Oh, no, this is an Armenian khorovats, so . . . .

Here Comes the Fish!

The fish: Barbecued whole trout. A bit on the dry side – the fire maybe too hot. We are all stuffed. I am toasted out, brandied and vodka-ed out. The wind is getting rather strong and I am getting a bit coolish in my little cotton shirt and short denim skirt. But the party is not over yet.

The Dessert!

Here come the apples, the peaches, the cherries, the water melons, followed by a box the size of a coffin full of bakery pastries. Enough, you think? Certainly not.

There’s More!

Ice cream cake!  A big one!  And we MUST have some. Coffee arrives. Thick and muddy, the way it is supposed to be here in Armenia.

Finally, we roll out of there. I am tired, full, finished. Man, oh man, this is what you call a barbecue.

Such a wonderful day we’ve had, a true cultural experience with friends and food. Such a lovely setting, such peace and quiet spent among the fruit trees and the flowers.

Yes, such an idyllic place, but in the course of this day a sheep was slaughtered and five-year-old Davit fought a war where all the soldiers perished.

* * *

Do you have an extreme food story? Or an interesting barbecue story?

Related Posts with Thumbnails

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

YTSL September 2, 2012 at 3:23 am

Oh, woah, Miss Footloose… so how *many* people were at this barbecue?! :O

FWIW, I’m not so shocked at a sheep getting slaughtered for you guys to eat as the amount of food there was at the barbecue feast… 😉

Re an extreme food story to share: hope you’re okay with me pointing you (and your readers) to my blog entry re eating blowfish sperm… :b

YTSL recently posted..Quiet and Silence (This week’s Photo Hunt themes)My Profile


missfootloose September 6, 2012 at 2:26 pm

Grilled blowfish sperm! Now there’s a unique food. Love your post, so read it folks! It’s a fabulous foodie story! I’ve never even heard of blowfish sperm, and wonder how they even “harvest” it…

Of course Chinese cuisine is famous for leaving nothing animate uneaten, and I am delighted to hear you actually thought blowfish sperm is so delicious!


Judy September 2, 2012 at 3:36 am

Reminds me of some of the 12 hour BBQs I attended in Azerbaijan. For them it’s sheep, sheep and fish (no pork). But what I really want to know is how did you cope with the flapping blue tarpaulin? I guess the “facilities” were at least air-conditioned. 🙂


missfootloose September 6, 2012 at 2:16 pm

I dealt with the flapping privy walls with Dutch stoicism: Who cares, it’s the way it is.


Kate September 2, 2012 at 11:12 am

At leat you could be sure your food was 100% fresh.

I have just had my coffee reading this, I don’t know if I’ll manage breakfast 😉
My husband recently bought a duck while I specifically asked for chicken to make soup for the baby. Now I’m suck with cooking the smelly bird. Maybe, had he known the Romanian/Russian word for chicken, he would have articulated what I had wanted more clearly instead of just pointing. But he was very positive he was buying a chicken. Now every time I make soup the whole house fills with the harsh smell.
But the most extreme was my dad’s cooking who decided it all ends up in the stomach, so he once boiled sausage and corn on the cob in milk…


missfootloose September 6, 2012 at 2:14 pm

Your father’s culinary skills are impressive 😉


Kathy September 2, 2012 at 4:41 pm

Shashlik – similar to shish kabob – is the BBQ staple in Russia. It has to be marinated for days in advance and is usually sheep. Another dish seen at BBQ is Plov. An Uzbek dish made with rice and lamb.


Pat September 2, 2012 at 6:50 pm

Delightful tale, Miss Footloose. Oh my, now that is an authentic BBQ. Makes the French family eating orgies look mild by comparison.


guyana gyal September 4, 2012 at 2:07 am

I sometimes watch a show on tv, Sunday Morning, about life in America. The piece about the history of bar-b-que was quite interesting.

I’ve heard of people eating racoon!


missfootloose September 6, 2012 at 2:12 pm

Raccoon on the barbecue, I’ve heard of that, but have never eaten it.


Margaret September 6, 2012 at 11:12 pm

This cracked me up! At one point in my life, I spent a lot of time in this part of the world, and I could definitely live the rest of it without seeing raw meat served with raw eggs, anything in aspic, or being handed a glass of what I think is water, but turns out to be home-brewed vodka.
Margaret recently posted..Mallorca: Frederic Chopin and George Sand slept hereMy Profile


Anna Yeritsyan September 7, 2012 at 12:14 pm

You never get used to it… This was not a first time I saw the “complete” barbecue process, but still can’t watch it. David is very soft-hearted, if he sees anything like this, he might quit eating meat for the rest of his life.
By the way, he still kills soldiers – now on the chess board 🙂
I wish you could visit us here again – we can arrange a barbecue!!!! :D, and in Central Asia I learnt how to cook a good Uzbek plov, Kathy mentioned in the comment above. I would like to tell you how exactly I learnt cooking plov. Armen’s colleagues decided to take us for a picnic right before we left from Bishkek and Armen volunteered in getting the lamb meat. Only in the market he realized that it is not nicely cut and prepared for the plov. Anyway, he brings home these lamb legs and tells me that we have to clean those from leftover hair and cut those on pieces that can go into the pot. We had to light the stove and hold big legs above the fire to complete the sheep leg epilation. Then we had to cut the leg bones with an axe that we did not have, so Armen suffered another hour figuring this out. But we got rewarded on the next day – the meat was on the fire, we added rice, tossed in tons of chopped onions and carrots, some spices and several cloves of garlic and enjoyed one of the best dishes…


missfootloose September 8, 2012 at 8:12 am

Anna, how great to “see” you here! That picnic was a very memorable experience, for sure, and yes, I wouldn’t mind doing that again. I love your story of the Uzbek plov cooking. Getting the sheep meat ready was certainly going back to basics 😉 I wonder if you took pictures…


Sarah September 8, 2012 at 2:20 pm

Not eating meat myself I do find the whole thing somewhat repulsive but having lived with my Romanian other half for almost 3 years I am far more used to the way they deal with animals and food. One thing I do know for sure is that they are a lot closer to the food they eat than we are in the west and I believe that is a very good thing.

I remember when I first met him, I dropped him off to his house on Christmas day for their big feast and when I got there I saw pigs’ ears (and other bits) hanging on a washing line to dry, that was eye-opening for sure!
Sarah recently posted..How To Deal With Negativity When Planning A Move AbroadMy Profile


Sonia Marsh/Gutsy Living September 8, 2012 at 3:35 pm

Miss Footloose,
Since you know how many courses they serve, is it OK to eat slowly so there is still food on your plate when they serve the next course? Do they get offended if you scoop a tiny amount of each course on your plate. or simply say, “No thank you.”
The people look thin on your photo. Do they eat like this once a week,and then starve themselves the rest of the days?
Sonia Marsh/Gutsy Living recently posted..An honest quick “chat” with SoniaMy Profile


missfootloose September 20, 2012 at 11:17 am

Hi Sonia. No, people don’t eat like this in Moldova every day, or even every week. These elaborate meals are for special occasions. Fortunately in Armenia, you’re not “obligated” to eat anything you don’t want, but of course it is appreciated if you try and show appreciation for the meal.


edj September 11, 2012 at 8:10 am

Oh Miss F, you have no idea! I, too, have gone for barbecues where the meat arrives live, many times, but sadly it wasn’t served delicious and grilled with veggies, but boiled w/o salt and with all its organs and intestines, which weren’t exactly thoroughly cleaned ahead of time, if you know what I mean.
Here is part 2 of a story about a most memorable meal eaten by starlight in the middle of the desert. http://planetnomad.wordpress.com/2007/02/21/adventures-in-eating-part-2/ Part one (you can find the link in part 2) describes my first meal in a Mauritanian home.
edj recently posted..Camping on the MetoliusMy Profile


missfootloose September 20, 2012 at 11:10 am

What a great story! Would have made a fabulous video, too… It is amazing the things that don’t make us sick. My kids once got food poisoning eating a hamburger in a posh five-star brand new major-chain hotel in Bangkok (while my husband and I were eating in a tourist place elsewhere).


~T~ October 11, 2012 at 4:33 pm

Wow! I want to meet your Armenian friends! I’m from Turkmenistan originally and I have seen similar picnics where a sheep is brought. I have cleaned the intestines many times to make special dish out of them and I love the boiled boned meat!
~T~ recently posted..Ju Bijoux – the jewelry star in ChisinauMy Profile


missfootloose October 14, 2012 at 1:07 am

Hi T! I am sorry we didn’t get together in Moldova so you could entertain me with your Turkmenistan tale!


Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge

Previous post:

Next post: