The increasingly indispensable Roads & Kingdoms blog has a wonderful new piece that takes a look at the Azeri tradition of cooking up khash, a hearty though labor-intensive stew made using a sheep's head, hooves and stomach that have gone through various processes in order to render the final product. What I found particularly interesting about the piece, written by Mark Hay, was its suggestion that for Azeris, cooking khash was as much a political act as a culinary one. From the article:
Staking out a claim on khash, naming it as something uniquely Azerbaijani, is a far weightier thing to do in the Caucasus than it is for Florida or Massachusetts to claim key lime or Boston cream pies, respectively, as their own though. Naming a food here is a political act, filled with fire and vigorm, as the contest over foods has been imbued with the long-simmering tensions of regional border disputes.
There are many serious issues facing Turkey, from the crisis in Syria to worsening relations with the central government in Iraq, but lately the country has been caught up in a debate over which beverage can be called the national drink: the anise-flavored spirit raki or the decidedly non-alcoholic yogurt-based ayran?
The debate was first launched by none other than the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who made waves when he declared in a recent speech that Turkey's true national drink is ayran and not raki -- a favorite of Turkish imbibers and of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's secularizing founder. The debate started heating up when, soon after Erdogan's speech, his Islamic-rooted governing party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), announced it would be introducing in parliament new legislation that would limit where alcohol can be sold and consumed and how it could be advertised.
A parliamentary sub-commission today approved a slightly watered-down version of the legislation, but not before the debate over it went from joking to hostile. Reports the Hurriyet Daily News:
As the debates on a draft bill restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol kicked off at a parliamentary commission, opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) members offered to serve ayran to their counterparts, mocking the prime minister's promotion of the salty yogurt-based refreshment as Turkey's original "national drink."
A cup of the real Turkish coffee, at Mandabatmaz in Istanbul
When water, finely-ground, dark roasted coffee and sugar are put together in a long-handled coffee put and brought to a near boil, is the result "Turkish coffee" or "Greek coffee"? That question, of course, is one that has been vexing the Middle East, Balkans and the Mediterranean for decades.
Inspired by a recent visit to Mandabatmaz, perhaps Istanbul's finest maker of Turkish coffee, reporter Joanna Kakkissis wrote an interesting post for NPR's food-oriented blog, The Salt, in which she took a look at how the politics of Turkish/Greek coffee. From her post:
....Ordering Turkish coffee today doesn't go over well in some Balkan or eastern Mediterranean countries that were once part of the Ottoman Empire — even if their preparation of the coffee is remarkably similar.
In Armenia, where the Ottomans led a genocide against more than a million people between 1915 and 1923, it's Armenian coffee. In Sarajevo, Bosnia, I once ordered a "Turkish coffee" only to be corrected by the irritated waiter: "You mean a Bosanska kafa" — a Bosnian coffee. In Cyprus, which the Turks invaded in 1974, it's a kypriakos kafes — Cypriot coffee. (Except in the northern third of the island, which Turkey has occupied since 1974.)
In Greece, where I live and which has a tortured history with Turkey, you order an elliniko — a Greek coffee.
"It wasn't always this way," says Albert Arouh, a Greek food scholar who writes under a pen name, Epicurus. "When I was a kid in the 1960s, everyone in Greece called it Turkish coffee."
At this point, Turks have become accustomed to having their moralizing Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, offer them tips on how to live. Erdogan has previously urged Turkish families to each have three children and, more recently, asked his fellow citizens to change their eating habits in order to decrease the amount of food they throw away.
Now the PM is wading into an even trickier subject: what should Turks drink. Reuters provides the details:
If you are looking for one sure way to split public opinion in Turkey, just bring up the word alcohol.
That is what Turkey's often divisive prime minister did late on Friday when he pronounced that the national drink was not beer, nor the aniseed spirit raki - choice tipple of Turkey's founding father - but the non-alcoholic yoghurt drink ayran.
Given the setting of his speech - a symposium on global alcohol policy in Istanbul - Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's comments appeared far from controversial, but so sensitive is the topic that the mere mention of it by the pious leader, known for his dislike of alcohol, has Turkey's secularists up in arms.
During the single-party rule of the Turkish Republic's early years by what is now the country's main - and staunchly secularist - opposition party, state promotion of alcohol amounted to propaganda, Erdogan said.
"Beer was unfortunately presented as a national drink. However, our national drink is ayran," he said, referring to the staple lunchtime refreshment of yoghurt, water and salt, usually swilled down with a meaty kebab.
Brandy means big business in Armenia -- it was the country's second-largest export last year, after the less drinkable copper concentrate -- so recent negotiations with the European Union over what to call the libation could have profound implications.
Yerevan and Brussels are currently negotiating the terms of a Free and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA), part of a larger agreement that would help bring Armenia and the EU closer together. As part of the negotiations, Yerevan is asking that the EU allow it to continue marketing its brandy as "cognac," which is the name used to sell the stuff in many parts of the former Soviet Union, which remains the largest market for Armenian brandy. According to European law, the name "cognac" can only be used for brandies that come from the French region of, well, Cognac. Reports the Armenpress website:
“There have certainly been discussions and they still continue. If there is an agreement, we will let you know”, - said the Deputy Minister of Economy [Garegin Melkonya]. Melkonyan stated that all the parts of the negotiations on the Armenia-European Union Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, which had not been finally agreed, would be passed to the next stage.
The Deputy Minister of Economy of the Republic of Armenia Garegin Melkonyan earlier informed that the word “Cognac” was protected by the European Legislation and was registered as a geographical indication. The Armenian side presented the European partners that cognac in Armenia was perceived as a kind of a product.
As Georgian wine continues on the path towards what looks like its return to the Russian market, Armenian wine producers are expressing concern that Georgia's gain may come at their expense. Reports the Arminfo website:
Return of Georgian wines to the Russian market following embargo suspension may cut growth of export of Armenian wines to Russia, Avag Haroutiunyan, Head of the Union of Armenian Winemakers, told ArmInfo.
A threefold growth of export of Armenian wines to Russia was planned for the coming five years. Wine export from Armenia grew 60% in 2012 to 1.185 million liters versus 744,000 liters in 2011, with nearly 75% of sales being in Russia. A few years ago, export totaled 500,000 liters, Haroutiunyan said. Before the embargo on Georgian wines in Russia, 50-55 million bottles of Georgian wine were sold in that country annually, despite the fact that the production capacity of Georgian wineries is some 15-20 million bottles. This shows that counterfeit production was manufactured either in Georgia or in
Russia. Georgian wineries have raised significant investments in modernization over the last years and have greatly improved the quality of wines.
"Now, they will offer the best products in the Russia market. Georgian wines are now of higher quality than the Armenian ones, but the prices will be similar. Armenia will have to raise additional investments in modernization of wineries to sustain competition," Haroutiunyan said.
As recently noted on Eurasianet, Georgian wines are slowly returning to the Russian market, after a seven-year ban. What this all means for the Georgian wine industry is still unclear and is one of the issues discussed in an interesting recent piece produced by Al Jazeera English, which took a good look at how the Georgian wine has fared over the last seven years. The video can be viewed below:
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?
In previous posts, this blog has taken a look at the effort some vintners are making to revive Armenia's historic but troubled wine industry. Armenia, of course, is best known for its cognac and the country's latest alcoholic beverages production figures show what an uphill battle Armenian winemakers are fighting. While cognac production grew by 20 percent last year, the amount of wine produced dropped by some seven percent, despite the recent moves to revive the wine industry.
In a recent article, the Hetq.am website took a look at what ails the Armenian wine industry, offering answers that ranged from the technical to the historical. From the article:
Globally, 10 billion bottles of wine are sold every year. Armenia sells around 600,000 bottles per year, some in the Russian market, where 1.2 billion are sold yearly. Russia also consumes 93% of Armenian cognac.
Only 5% of the Armenian cognac sold in Russia is purchased by the wealthy elite. That’s because most of it is sold for 25-300 roubles; the price of Russian wine. There are a few Armenian cognac varieties that go for 1000 roubles.
All these numbers concern Avag Haroutyunyan, President of Armenia’s Wine Growers Union. He says that cognac production and exports have risen 10% over last year and are 30% higher than the record years back in the Soviet era.
“Armenian cognac is fairly well known throughout the world. But Armenian wine is another story,” says Haroutyunyan. He believes that wine growing in Armenia is losing out to cognac because that’s where the investment is being directed. Armenian wines also aren’t well represented on the international market.
[UPDATE: According to Today's Zaman, Turkish Airlines is denying it has changed its policy regarding serving alcoholic beverages on domestic flights.]
It looks like Turkish Airlines (THY) is cutting off one of the main perks of flying the carrier's domestic business class: free booze. As the Hurriyet Daily News reports today, THY planes will no longer be serving alcohol on domestic flights, except when traveling to six apparently boozy destinations (the airline, though, will continue to free alcoholic drinks on most of its international flights). From HDN's article:
After surveying the preferences of passengers over the last year, Turkish Airlines has decided to remove alcoholic drinks from the service menu except during flights to İstanbul, İzmir, Bodrum, Dalaman, Antalya and Ankara.
Alcoholic beverages used to be served to business class passengers aboard domestic flights up until last week. Planes flying domestic routes will now not stock alcoholic beverages on board as part of austerity measures regarding service goods.
Recently, THY aroused public criticism with several passengers having reported that when they asked for alcoholic drinks the cabin crew denied their requests, saying that alcohol had been forgotten to be loaded with the plane’s cargo.