Thursday, July 20, 2006

Apricots, Unhappy Marriages, and the Mafia

Actually, I didn’t intend to write an apricot blog today. But I spoke with my folks in Armenia in a phone call, and they said, among other news, it is unbearably hot and that apricots are selling for 300 drams (about 70 cents) per kilo. This is an accurate indicator of Armenia's inflation. Just four years ago, a kilo of apricots could be bought for about 10 cents. Yes, 10 cents! But worse yet, tsiran, apricots, are just not as good as they were last year. Everyone is disappointed at the small size of this year's tsiran.

Yes, it is apricot season in Armenia which means that apricot-related themes dominate Armenian news. Journalists are trying to find new metaphors to enliven their annual reports about the apricot harvest and the price of apricots at Armenian markets.

The term “apricot republic” has become an Armenian journalistic cliché. Perhaps it’s appropriate, since bananas are expensive imports for Armenia. If there is any news pointing to lawlessness, backwardness, or dependence on foreign money, chances are that the story will include the expression “apricot republic.”

Recently, apricot coverage has intensified thanks to the annual Golden Apricot International Film Festival. Apricots are blessed as part of the festival’s opening ceremony. Photojournalists try to find some bridges between apricots and the cinematic participants. This year’s highlights included pictures of Armenia’s newly-appointed Minister of Culture, Hasmik Poghosyan, wearing an apricot-color dress. Another photo showed the president of the festival, Atom Egoyan, eating an apricot at the opening ceremony of the festival.

A new turn in the apricot theme was introduced by the Russians. Out of the blue, on July 10, Russian authorities decided the crossing gate at its Kazbegi-Verkhny Lars border with Georgia needed “reconstruction” and painting. The gate was closed and all cross-border travel halted. This unannounced remont (Russian for repairs) resulted in backed-up traffic and business losses of thousands, if not millions, of dollars, drams, and rubles. Tons of apricots from Armenia intended for export to Russia spoiled in their shipping trucks. And, as a result, the apricot was integrated into the theme of disappointment over Russia’s treatment of Armenia.

The idea of a bad Armenian-Russian marriage was played over and over again by Armenian media commentators. The plot is always the same: a disappointed wife complains that her husband takes her for granted, and in desperation, to improve the marriage, she is open to different strategies to make him more attentive to her needs. But it’s somewhat amazing that Armenians who have lived so long with Russians and who are so well-versed in Russian literature can still believe in happy marriages. After all, it was Anton Chekhov, a famous son of Russia, who declared: “If you are afraid of loneliness, do not marry.”

Thus, disappointment with the Russians added an international touch to apricot coverage. An article in the Armenian newspaper 168 Hours was headlined “Between Authoritarianism and an Apricot.”

But the apricot is not limited only to Armenia’s mass media. There is also the established genre of apricot gossip. Its main theme is that there is always someone who cheats customers and affects apricot prices for the worse. In fact, one definition of democracy in Armenia is “a system where everyone has an equal right to feel cheated by their fellow Armenians.”

The latest apricot-related gossip is that Armenia’s mafia created an artificial monopoly this year when it forced fruit farmers to accept “offers they could not refuse.” Apricot and cherry exports are very profitable and, supposedly, have attracted attention from organized crime. Rumors say that even armed guards were dispatched to the larger orchards to enforce the terms of such contracts, so that no apricots will be sold on the side, to local markets. This crooked ploy is aimed at Armenia’s main competitors, the fruit merchants of Georgia who pay their growers higher wages and then sell the majority of the crop in Georgia itself. Armenian apricots are popular in Georgia and enjoy high demand. As a result, so rumors say, Armenia’s crime bosses demand only the best grade of apricots for their export businesses, and only the worst apricots, the smallest, are left for local sale.

In order to make the best apricot preserves, called korizov tsirani mooraba, you have to have large, mature apricots. The recipe is unique in that it includes the sweet kernels of the apricot pits, a delicious touch virtually unknown in the West. Pits from small, runty apricots don’t yield an adequate nut when cracked, so it is next to impossible to make the prized preserves this year. That is bad apricot news, indeed.


If you want to read more about Armenia’s delicious apricots and other Armenian fruits, please check out our book, ARMENIAN FOOD: FACT, FICTION & FOLKLORE, by Irina Petrosian and David Underwood, ISBN 1411698659.

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