A Very Yerevan Birthday
6th December, 2014
If you ask my friend Victoria how she found this place, she’ll tell you she smelled it first. Only Victoria could sniff out freshly cooked food through all of the other scents that surround Vernissage Market.
Vernissage is one of the most beautiful things to see in Yerevan: a square mile or so of handicrafts, artisans, elaborately decorated backgammon sets, dreamy paintings of Ararat mountain, and plenty of flea market stalls mingling with the pricier arts and crafts.
About halfway down the market, there is a great secret, which even the most knowledgeable local may be oblivious to. The secret is a food hall, run by a wonderful old woman, with a mean temper.
The woman, who for now we shall call Tatik, greets us like old friends and grabs a bottle of vodka she keeps behind the counter. “Don’t tell my husband!” she says in Armenian, winking and pointing at a group of men sitting near the door. She pours a few shots surreptitiously into murky glasses and we clink them together. Victoria points at me and says something in Armenian. The woman grins at me and I smile. Yep, today is my birthday.
According to Victoria, this restaurant first opened in 1991, and was once a very popular place to eat. Over time it ran down and eventually closed. At some point in recent years, some of the traders coming to the weekend market asked to store their wares in the building during the week. Eventually, Tatik realised she could make extra money at the weekends by cooking for the traders too. The food hall has no name and is unmarked. It’s characterised by drunk men stumbling around outside, but Tatik keeps them in line by yelling at them when they get out of hand.
Tatik makes the vodka herself in her village. She also makes the wine, cheese, and all of the dishes surrounding her in huge metal pans. A giant dead fish stares at us. Limbs poke out of bowls, smothered in broth. The meat eaters among us select various grotesque looking plates. Victoria orders us a giant omlette and boulder-sized slab of cheese, along with a plate of pickled peppers and a platter of roast potatoes. It’s a marvelous birthday banquet.
The whole array, including cola, bread and half a litre of vodka, comes to under £10 (around $12). It’s enough for the five of us, two other travellers who come to join us, and so much left over that we pack a slab of cheese into a bag and take it home.
Locals always come to join us when we sit in this place. Today it’s the man who sold Victoria her blender. When he hears it’s my birthday, he calls for another bottle of vodka, along with half a litre of wine. He makes several lengthy toasts and forces Hrach to translate, checking between sentences that we have understood the exact meaning. He is very displeased by our friend Lena’s nose-ring, but seems not to notice mine.
We spill out of the murky diner into the chilly sunlight, just as the traders are packing their wares into the corners of the room. A man sits on the step outside, his head buried in his hands.
We’re already late for our next item on my birthday agenda. Hrach is playing a gig in his friend’s bar and he needs to go and set up. The two of us make our way home and I sprawl on the bed while he hunts for his guitar strap.
When I wake up, it’s three hours later and Ana, Victoria’s flatmate, is patiently waiting for me in the lounge. I already feel as though I’ve been struck round the head with a mallet, but I stumble through the cool night air with Ana, to where Hrach is already halfway through playing his set.
Victoria and the others have gone ahead to another bar. We wait for Hrach to finish and follow them.
“Freak n Chic” is exactly what you might expect from a bar with such a name: neon blue lights flash across the dance-floor in the otherwise dingy room. A lone man dances, stomping and aggressively swinging his arms, his eyes pinned to the DJ, who accommodates him by throwing a series of shapeless electronic noises at the sparse room. Someone has ordered us an enormous “long island” with six straws, which we all sip and grimmace at in turn. It tastes like vodka mixed with ethanol, with a bit of fruit floating inside. The glass is the size of my head.
The night turns hazy, but my camera tells a tale the following day.