During our visit to Tbilisi in February 2013 we undertook a day trip into neighbouring Armenia, visiting the UNESCO-listed monasteries at Sanahin and Haghpat and a historic church at Akhtala.
It was a private tour, organised by the Yerevan-based Envoy Tours, and we had an Armenian driver and Armenian guide with us.
Our guide explained to us that Envoy Tours believe in promoting local, family-run eating places during their tours and will incorporate a lunch stop at such a place in all their day trips.
The guide and driver had travelled from Yerevan to Tbilisi the previous day in order to pick us up for the day trip and had discovered a small roadside eatery on their journey. They had enjoyed a meal there and had arranged with the owners (an elderly couple) that they would bring us there for lunch during our tour the following day.
The "restaurant" (and I use the term very loosely!) was located between the roadside and the railway tracks on a stretch of road between Haghpat and Akhtala.
It was housed in an old railway carriage. Our guide explained that after the 1988 earthquake destroyed many houses in this part of Armenia, people who had lost their homes lived in these carriages while their homes were rebuilt. Once the homes and towns had been rebuilt, many of the families converted the carriages into roadside eateries. This one was sub-divided with a dining area on one side and a kitchen on the other. The dining area was simply decorated; patterned wallpaper and a dining table, with a small heater to give us some warmth.
Outside the restaurant, overlooking the railway lines, was a barbecue area. This is where the main part of our meal (the khorovats; Armenian barbecue) would be prepared. There were two skewers of seasoned pork and two skewers of sliced potatoes on the coals awaiting our arrival. We watched as the owner lit the barbecue and began to cook the meat and potatoes. It didn't look particularly hygienic, but it certainly smelled very good!
It was cold, so we sat inside while the food was cooking outside. The dining table had been laid out with a small buffet. There were plates of lavash (Armenian bread) and homemade cheese, bowls of homemade yoghurt and plates of homegrown salads. Our hosts had prepared a range of dips (with aubergine, tomato and peppers), pickled apples, beetroots, carrots, radishes and onions. We learnt that the owners grow their own vegetables and herbs, bake their own bread, produce their own dairy products and keep their own chickens. In fact, we saw the chickens roaming around outside the front of the restaurant.
Once the pork and potatoes were thoroughly cooked, they were brought inside and added to the feast. We were then invited to tuck in. The pork was very tasty (if a little fatty) and we both nibbled at a few pieces. The potatoes were nice and the lavash was delicious. We found ourselves filling up on lavash; dipping it in the tasty yoghurt and dips or filling it with pieces of cheese and salad leaves.
To accompany the food, we were given glasses of an Armenian soft drink (which was similar to Coke) and mineral water. After the meal, I had a small cup of thick, sludgy Armenian coffee while the rest of our party (perhaps knowing what the coffee would be like!) had cups of herbal tea. I had hoped that we'd get to try a shot of Armenian cognac, but this proved to be an alcohol-free meal.
Although the food wasn't the best we've ever had, that didn't really matter. The experience was fantastic; sitting in a simple converted railway carriage eating homegrown food and traditional Armenian khorovats with local people is a memory that will last for a long time!
Armenian khorovats and homegrown food in a simple converted railway carriage. A wonderful experience!