Suddenly, here in Yerevan, I realise that I have now been away for four weeks. I feel as if I have been here in Armenia for four weeks; that's how full the past fortnight has been. And before that came the complexities and interestingnesses of Azerbaijan. I have eaten very well, but that's not the full-upness, almost indigestion I feel. Instead it's the richness of my encounters and of the food cultures here in the Caucasus that gives me a feeling of fullness and threatens to overwhelm me.
I sure have a lot of work to do to sort through the things I have learned, and all my impressions of Armenia and Azerbaijan from this trip. After that of course comes the recipe work, and the integrating of all of it into the writing and recipes I have already done...
Everything I learn feels like a confirmation of the interconnectedness, historically and culinarily, of this Persian World, from Iran and Kurdistan to the three countries of the Caucasus. And at the same time each culture and region is so distinctive, and has a very clear view of its own importance.
As with many neighbours, there's a mistrust between the three Caucasus nations. The Azeris and Armenians are in a ceasefire but still feeling actively hostile (the Azeris in particular in my experience) about the Nagorno Karabagh issue. The mountainous region is under Armenian control now, and the Azeri population that lived there moved to Azerbaijan in the mid-nineties. Conversely, the many Armenians who lived in Baku and elsewhere in Azerbaijan left, had to leave.
Yesterday I met one of them, an Armenian woman born in Baku. When she learned I had been there recently she asked, and did the wind blow? She had tears in her eyes, as people do who have been severed from their homeland and are reminded of their loss. Multiply her by thousands, and you have a sense of the layers of painful history in the region.
At the same time, there's a vibrancy too. Georgians and Armenians each speak a distinctive language, each with its own alphabet, that has survived invaders and conquerers for several thousand years, including the oppressions of the Soviet Union. The fall of that empire in 1990, the destruction of one pattern and the emergence of the individual nation states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, was both painful and exciting. People lost jobs and security as Soviet industries crumbled or were sold off to enrich the oligarchs. Yet that first feeling of having their own country, rather than being ruled from Moscow, was exhilarating for many.
Nearly twenty-five years later, afer various traumas - not just the Karabagh war but also Georgia's two conflicts with Russia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia), and pollution problems in Azerbaijan because of its Caspian Sea oil, and massive and growing inequality of income in all three countries - the future is a little murky.
But one thing people do know and are proud of, are their cultural traditions, among them, having an important place of honour, their food traditions.
As always, then, travel and inquiry through the lens of food has been exhilarating and rewarding... Now I need to do honour to the rich traditions and hitory I have learned about, and I need to convey the warmth and generosity of the people I have met, and the wealth and enticingness of their culinary traditions....