Expat Foodie: Extreme Barbecue at the Dacha

by Miss Footloose

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 the expat life in Armenia, land of the khorovats, extreme barbecue. Now that I live in France where barbecue is popular if not of Biblical proportions, I long for a traditional 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 and rich business types, 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. You didn’t know this? Neither did I, so don’t feel bad.

It’s still early when we arrive at our destination, a bucolic plot of land mostly taken up by an unkempt orchard and a garden overrun with weeds and wild flowers blooming in lush profusion. The scene looks lovely and serene, giving no warning to things un-serene yet to come.

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

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

You’re Wondering About the Facilities?

Me too. I discover them further afield amid the wild flowers: 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.

At the dacha preparations are underway to feed some twenty people. A member of the host’s family offers us homemade yogurt to hold us over till the real food is cooked. Our help is not needed, so my man finds someone to discuss business with and I 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. (Please don’t write me about becoming a vegetarian, I know, I know . . . .)

Armenian sheep waiting for barbecue


I turn away, and entertain myself talking to Anna and her son Davit. He’s an adorable five-year-old, all eyes and ears, skinny and super bright. He loves playing un-serene 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

Then I catch sight of 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 outta there.

Two men are doing the manly thing and start a fire in the barbecue. Women, doing the womanly thing, are washing and cutting up tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, readying them to be barbecued as well. Skewers the size of fencing rods appear. I keep walking back and forth to the butchery scene, wanting to see and not to see.

Finally, the Butchery is Over

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 they’re roasted we’re invited to have a piece of this coveted fare. 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. To accompany the first of these lusted-after 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 amid the gentle swaying wild flowers. Yes, I know what you are thinking.


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.



How to Set the Table

First you have to have a table, and this takes creativity. The table available is a creaky metal thing that is not big enough for us all, so someone rustles up an old door which is propped up with a wooden box and a crate full of empty soft drink bottles. Many hands busy themselves draping a motley collection of cloths over the table and covering benches with blankets and throws. Rickety chairs are added, and voilà, there’s room for everybody to sit. Then the plates, glassware and cutlery come out, a symphony of colors and sizes. I love this sort of making-do. It feels so . . . authentic, don’t you think?

Finally, the food arrives. The host’s son is newly married and his bride is rushing back and forth like she runs on batteries, her face expressionless, poor thing. Don’t worry, one of our friends tells me, she’s earning her points as the new daughter-in-law. As is the custom, she and her husband live with her in-laws.

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!

Everybody takes a turn in between chewing mouthfuls of food. 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. We sit around for a while enjoying more toasts and more drinks. There’s time between courses so I get up and wander around the orchard to help digestion and play a little with Zen contemplation. How interesting is my expat life in Armenia. How lovely to live in the moment right now. How peaceful.

I stroll over to join Anna and little Davit, who is sitting in the grass. Rather un-Zenfully, I manage to crush a collection of cut flower heads under my feet, but no problem: The blooms represent 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. As I said, not all is serene here in the countryside.

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

The meat has been cooking for several hours and is falling off the bone. I try not to think of the pathetic 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.  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, my prince and I 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.

Note: All photos are mine

* * *

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

You may also like

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

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!


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.

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?

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… Read more »

Anna Yeritsyan

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… Read more »


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.

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!


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

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.


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.… Read more »

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. 🙂

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


This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x