Have you ever tasted an Armenian apricot? Chances are, if you haven’t been to Armenia, you haven’t. This summer I tasted a fresh-off-the-tree Armenian apricot and it changed my world. Never in my life have I experienced such an intense explosion of flavour in a fruit; I almost cried. It was sweet. It was firm but juicy at the same time. It was rich, it was delicate – it was amazing. The rich, volcanic soils of the Ararat plain give rise to some incredibly flavourful produce – all of it organic by default, since pesticides and herbicides are too expensive and generally frowned upon as “cheating”. Apricots are but one of the fruits borne in the shadows of the Holy mountain; cherries, pomegranates, tomatoes, walnuts, cucumber, peaches…the list goes on. After that colourful description, I must confess this post has nothing to do with apricots – but I used it as my lead in to be able to illustrate the magic of the Ararat plain. I do intend, however, to share a simple, healthy salad that endeared itself to us over our 8 days in Armenia – a salad relying completely on rich, red juicy tomatoes (which happen to be in season right now), crisp mini cucumbers and fresh herbs. Over the next week, I will add to my salad repertoire with a number of other salads inspired by our journeys along the Silk Road – so stay tuned! But for now, I bring you the Armenian salad.
The simplicity of this salad and the intensity of its flavour (provided you use fresh, local produce) will surprise you. This salad was served with just about every meal in Armenia, and I never got sick of it. I remember in particular one restaurant that was situated on a river. Their home baked fresh-from-the-clay-oven lavash bread was served with a plate of mixed herbs, a bowl of thickened yoghurt (madzhoon – similar to Lebanese labneh), a plate of feta (which in Armenia is similar to Persian or Turkish feta – neither as salty nor as hard as the Greek version but rather soft and spreadable) and sparkling Jermuk mineral water. You never left a meal in Armenia feeling as though you had sinned against the diet gods – everything was fresh, organic and healthy.
It’s very important that you use fresh herbs in the following recipe – dried herbs do not work. Although we use olive oil, most Armenians do not have a taste for olives or olive oil and you will find that for the most part, they use vegetable oil. The cheese we use is called Tressé. It’s a salty white cheese in strings – I heard it compared to mozzarella cheese strings, but it is really not like that at all, except maybe in texture. Tressé, which I assume comes from the French word meaning “braided” is a braided ball of salted cheese with generous amounts of nigella (or black cumin) enmeshed within it. Known sometimes as “Armenian String Cheese” it is also eaten widely in Lebanon and Syria. On it’s own, it’s initially overwhelming in its saltiness, but leaves behind a very appealing taste; in this salad it provides exactly enough salt to contrast with the sweetness of the tomatoes and the sourness of the red wine vinegar. Tressé can be found in Middle Eastern grocery stores (look for a big ball of ‘stringy’ looking cheese) and, of course, at Highland Farms (what doesn’t that place have, anyway?!) If you don’t want to buy a big ball of tressé, you could just as easily add feta. But if you like the salad, do make it your goal to try it with the tressé sometime!
3 baby cucumbers, thickly diced (peeled if you want, but I never do)
8-10 campari tomatoes (or other sweet, ripe tomato)
a generous handful of purple basil (this can be hard to find; if you can’t find it, you can substitute regular basil)
A generous handful of cilantro
A slightly smaller handful of dill
About 60 g of tressé cheese, pulled apart
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
1/4 tsp fleur de sel
pepper to taste
Chop the campari tomatoes in halves or quarters; mix with the diced cucumbers. Roughly chop the herbs, add to the salad, top with the tresse, drizzle the olive oil and vinegar over top, season with salt and pepper and prepare to enjoy the wonderfully simple summer flavours of Armenia.