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Traditional tonir lavash

Slice of Life: Old ways are kept in the village process of lavash

By Viorica Vladica
ArmeniaNow correspondent

Noisy laughing and chatting draws attention to the backyard of a nice village house and the urge to enter is irresistible. Inside a small dark room three women are happily gossiping about every possible occurrence in their neighborhood.

While the room is a neighborhood center for discussing who did what to whom, there is more going on here than talk.

Surrounded by hundreds of rolls of dough that make the room a mini factory, the women are a link between Armenian tradition and the ever-contemporary need for sustenance. In this place and countless others like it across the nation, lavash, the national bread without which no Armenian meal is complete is the practical product of this neighborhood chatroom.

The women -- a wife, her young daughter and her husband's sister -- are lit by a single light pulled into the basement of their house located in the village of Aygepat, 50 kilometers from Yerevan. Each is seated on the ground, finishing preparation of the dough.

"We're about to cook 170 lavashes", proudly says Karine Tsaturyan. "That's how we ensure that our family has bread for 20 days."

Even though their motions are mechanical and betray a routine, women say they put heart in catering.

"If you are not surrounded by love and calm, you better not start making bread," explains Hasmik Badalyan, Karine's sister-in-law. She is convinced that no matter how good the quality of flour, the first-class dough is conceived with love.

When the dough is finished the women move to the hatsatun, the place with the oven. It is another miniature room reminiscent of a veranda. And, in the lavash process that is emphatically women's work, in this room men are allowed - are required in fact.

Karine says getting the fire ready is the men's work and the men agree that warming up the stove requires some skills and feelings as well.

"Men don't take part in lavash cooking," says Manvel Badalyan. (In some villages they are not even allowed in the cooking room.) "Maybe some of them would do it in the city, but village men have their role in the household."

These men's role is to gather wood, start the fire and heat the oven, then turn the rest over to the women.

Although contemporary technologies allow machines to bake thousands of lavash slices in short time, villagers use the same day-long technique as generations before them stretching back thousands of years.

The special stove, called tonir, is a stoned or ceramic hole in the ground dug up to one and a half meters inside. Its bottom is used for the coals to heat it and its walls are for baking. Other holes are dug near the tonir for the women to put their feet in so that they feel comfortable when making the bread.

When the fire has turned to coals and the tonir is ready Karine and Hasmik lay the pieces of dough on round wood plates.

Then Hasmik takes one slice of dough and sticks it against the tonir wall. It stays stuck like this for about two minutes when Karine picks it out with a flat metal device and puts it in a container. The process is repeated until the women exhaust all 170 pieces of dough.

The place is quickly filled up with the comforting smell of fresh baked bread. Manvel and his daughter do not resist and eat the first lavash. Their faces tell the taste.

Manvel says that a fresh lavash is so good that sometimes it can replace a whole lunch.

Karine remembers that she learned to make lavash from her mother-in-law after marrying Manvel.

"When you grow up and get married, you'll do the same for your family," Karine says to her daughter.

Editor's note: Viorica Vladica is a visiting journalism student from Moldova.

Tonir - Making lavash dough
Tonir - fresh lavash