The Allure of the Armenian Apricot
I woke up in the middle of a sweltering summer one morning in Armenia two years ago, went to the market, reached into my shopping bag on the way back to my apartment, plucked out a ripe apricot and felt the world stop when I bit into it. I could taste the earth it was grown in, the water its roots had drank to flourish and the love that had cultivated it in the vast plains of the Araratian valley. Before I reached my door, I had more pits in my plastic bag than actual fruit. This routine continued for an entire summer until apricot season had ended. On one particularly hot, meandering day, the pits of that summer’s stock, all of which were meticulously saved, were fashioned into the shape of a very large apricot – a symbolic, stylish ceremony displaying all the apricots consumed and enjoyed by laying them out one by one on a table in a remodeled Soviet-era apartment in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital.
Ask anyone in Armenia – be it diasporan, repatriate, life long resident or tourist – where to find the best apricots in the world and sure enough the only answer you’ll receive is, “here”, within the borders of this mountainous, landlocked country nestled between Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Iran.
It’s not bias, but more or less fact, as even the fruit’s scientific, Latin, name – “Prunus Armeniaca” – suggests its origins are tied to Armenia. An archaeological excavation found apricot seeds in a Copper Age site and scholars often suggest that Alexander the Great brought apricots from Armenia to Greece, introducing it to the Mediterranean country.
But other theories dismiss Armenia’s claim to the apricot, citing places like India and China as its native land. Despite the disagreements over origin, its cultivation for eons in Armenia has solidified its status in the country. The apricot tree’s wood is used to make the duduk, an ancient Armenian woodwind instrument central to folk music, and the orange in Armenia’s tri-colored flag is often referred to as “apricot”. In neighboring Nagorno-Karabakh – a defacto republic still reeling from the impact of a deadly war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, you’ll find homemade apricot vodka so potent, just one shot will be enough to blur the lines between dream and reality.
Indeed, there is not an apricot in the world that tastes like the ones found in Armenia. It is more than just a piece of fruit – the weight of a country and a diaspora’s national psyche, with equal parts tragedy and nostalgia, rests on its shoulders.
Scattered across the world by the horrors of a genocide at the turn of the 20th century, the Armenian Diaspora’s feet have always been on the move, planted elsewhere by accident and circumstance, butconstantly pulled back by the heavy gravitational force of Armenia. As immigrants in faraway lands struggling with a collective, passed down trauma and relishing in the nostalgic notions of homeland – a place kept neatly framed in scenic oil paintings hung on walls from Beirut to Boston, there is an intense longing for home, a place to feel grounded and whole in again, a place where an apricot can be so delicious, that no other apricot found in any other corner of the world will do.
The feeling can only be described in words that have no direct English translation. One of them is the Portuguese “Saudade”, a deeply melancholic state for the absence of something or someone. The other is a Welsh word, “Hiraeth”, defined by the University of Wales Trinity Saint David as “homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed.”
Forever homesick, Armenians are always searching for that fulfillment of home, for what was lost to be found.
After leaving Armenia, I, too, was searching. My quest for the perfect apricot however, turned out to be fruitless.
Back home on the West Coast, I drove up and down California looking for the apricot that would make all the difference. I looked from Los Angeles to Fresno, a place of early Armenian settlement sought out for its similarities back home where migrants became skilled in farming and agricultural production. I surveyed them in the grocery stores on a trip to Kenya and in farmers’ markets in England where I spent an extensive amount of time. I scoured the open-air markets of Italy in the summer, hoping to replicate the taste of the elusive apricot. My search from one corner of the world to the other always ended in disappointment and I was left feeling sour.
Then, after I had forgotten about my intermittent search for months, a bowl of apricots appeared on my kitchen table looking suspiciously familiar.
“They’re Armenian apricots,” my mom shouted from the living room. “No they’re not,” I stubbornly retorted back. She insisted I taste one and, mostly wanting to prove her wrong, I did. With one bite, the rush of those afternoons, walking between sprawling Soviet apartment blocks on broken concrete, stray dogs on one side and neighborhood children on the other, while I stood, frozen in time cracking open apricots and inhaling them like air, came back.
How had a supplier in California managed to recreate the flavor of the Armenian apricot, the ease with which the fruit could be pulled apart with bare hands, the particular way its juices soaked your clothes as you struggled to find a second to breathe between bites?
It didn’t take long to solve the mystery.
A very clever green-thumbed entrepreneur, knowing he would be providing a much needed supply to a massive demand, had at some point brought back apricot seeds from Armenia to Southern California, planted them here and managed to recreate their glory, 7,000 miles away from the plains and valleys that first birthed them.
After eating a handful, I immediately drove to the tiny corner market my mom had purchased them from and brought several bags back home. I enjoyed them as the days got hotter and the hum from nearby crickets grew louder at night. I packed them for a road trip, gave them away to friends and plotted jam recipes to savor their flavor for eternity, or at least until winter, anyway.
I had been searching for years for that taste of “home”, a home I wasn’t born in, didn’t grow up in, but one that nagged at my feet relentlessly, telling me that I belonged “there” as much as I belonged “here”.
That taste of home had suddenly and unexpectedly reappeared in my Los Angeles kitchen, but it didn’t stay for long.
Two weeks after the discovery, the market’s newest batch didn’t impress. Its looks and taste had faded and so had the euphoria it brought. The magic of feeling like I was in two places at the same time tragically ended, taking it back across the ocean, through the mountains and into the market stalls of Yerevan, poetically continuing the destiny of a diaspora still wandering, wondering when they’ll reach home.
I’m still chasing that feeling back to Armenia, having become a kind of ‘reverse’ migrant, enamored with an apricot that belongs firmly to a land and place in the world that I feel I often do too.
Originally published at Mashallah News, July 2013