As any cycle-tourist will tell you, feeding a cycle tourist is no easy task. The demands of a stomach that processes a minimum of 5,000 calories per day must not be underestimated — indeed, such needs can often be a source of great embarassment for the hungry cyclist when invited in at the end of the day and presented with a portion sized for a mere mortal.
Last Christmas I was staying in Yerevan, Armenia, and I had the pleasure of hosting two very hungry cyclists — Fearghal and Simon of Revolution Cycle, the journey which they triumphantly and heroically completed earlier this year. The lads were expecting the full traditional Christmas spread — as well they should, after detouring so many hundreds of kilometres through the snowy mountains on the sole promise of mince-pies — and it was clear that this would be a truly formidable challenge.
Finding both a turkey and a goose was my top priority, for which I had to travel to the meat bazaar at the other end of Yerevan, there being no Tesco and thus no deep-freeze aisle in Armenia. When I got the scraggly, non-factory-farmed, normally-proportioned specimens home, I found that they were freshly slaughtered, with all limbs and innards present and correct, and with only a token effort having been made at plucking. Luckily the chaps weren’t around to spectate as preparation ensued, else they might not have eaten so voraciously.
No Christmas is complete without mince pies, but Armenia has no mince pies. Making them couldn’t be too difficult — or so I thought. It occurred to me that I hadn’t the slightest idea how to make even mincemeat. A little research indicated I’d need suet, which is the solid fat from the area around the kidneys of a cow. It looked like the meat market would need a second visit.
I located the aforementioned kidney fat from a man who was sitting on a stool on the roadside, surrounded by blood and heads, with a big plastic tub in front of him which was full of all the parts of a cow that nobody else wanted. He sold me a big stringy pile of the stuff for next to nothing. Apparently, he said, it’s used in folk medicine here to cure cetain ailments. (Most healthcare in Armenia seems to be based on faith alone — unsurprising if you’ve ever seen the inside of a municipal clinic).
Back home I pulled the lumps of fat apart and put them in a pan to render — which is to melt all the liquid fat and strain it from the supporting tissue. A few hours later, the flat smelled like a kebab house at 2am on a Sunday morning, but I had my suet. The mincemeat was pretty simple after that — dried fruit, chopped nuts, sugar and spice; and cognac, for which Armenia is famous in a large part due to Winston Churchhill having a taste for the stuff. It’s so good that France has even allowed the Ararat Brandy Company to use the French word ‘cognac’ to describe its product — strange but true.
Shortcrust pastry asks for lard, and who the hell was I to substitute mere margarine in its place? Back to the meat market for a giant lump of pig fat and a repeat of the rendering process, only with the flat smelling like a bacon-frying festival rather than a chip shop. But as we all agreed, the end result was well worth the effort — and there were enough ingredients left to make a Christmas pud as well!
Through trying to recreate our traditional Christmas meal in a far-off land, I’d discovered more about what goes into our festive foods than I could have imagined, now that these items come off the supermarket shelf in nicely-designed boxes. I encourage everyone to have a go at putting traditional food together in the traditional way — it’s a great education, and all that work just makes the final result taste so much better. Especially if you’re a cyclist.