Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Picking derev, grape leaves, is an old Armenian food tradition. The leaves are used to in a variety of recipes, the most popular are the delectable grape leaves stuffed with rice, pine nuts, and spices. We call it sarma or yalanchi one or both might be words shared with Turks. The Greeks call it dolmades.
The word derev simply means leaf in Armenian. Some Armenians use the Turkish word for leaf: yaprak. Either way, most Armenians my age have images of their grandmothers picking leaves, bringing them home and making sarma with fresh leaves, and canning the bulk of the bounty to use throughout the winter.
In the old country, they used to pick them, I am guessing, on their own land. In the US, only the Armenian immigrants that continued their farming heritage could pick leaves on their own land. Most worked in cities. When they needed grape leaves, they would have to find them in parks and on country roadsides. Everyone has a story of driving someplace and hearing their grandmother yell "Devev!" when she spotted grape leaves. As often as not, we had to stop the car and gather leaves. Sometimes when grandma inspected the leaves she would call the whole thing off because the leaves had too many bug holes, were too thick (the tenderer the better), or bitter. There are stories of this lady or that having a location where she would get the best derev... and then comments that she would never ever share the location of her secret spot.
In the past thirty years or so, it is possible to buy bottled leaves in the US. The primary brand is Yergat (Iron) from California. They are an Armenian owned company. It is now possible to buy them also from Turkey. Just this year, some Middle Eastern stores have been carrying vacuum packed leaves in addition to bottled leaves. The vacuum packed leaves are imported from Turkey.
Many Armenians use the bottled leaves as do my favorite sarma makers: my mother and my wife Judy. I have heard them complaining that the variation of leaf size and thickness from the bottled leaves is high. There are just too many small, broken, and thick leaves. The ladies at our church only use half to two-thirds of the leaves in the bottle.
I would always tell me wife that there are derev everywhere along the main bike trail and other routes that I ride. We never seem to go and collect them. A few weeks ago she was making sarma for my birthday festivities and really not happy with any of the bottled leaves. I was just heading out for a ride and took a plastic grocery bag with me. After logging about 20 miles, I stopped and picked leaves. I think I picked a hundred or so of the largest and tenderest leaves I could find. I brought them home and she loved them, they were perfect. The sarma she made was the best she had ever made. Everyone oohed and aahed over it. I think it was more about the stuffing but, being my birthday, everyone praised me for the leaves. More likely it was a combination of both. It takes both the leaves and the stuffing to make good sarma.
Our friend Shoushan was very funny. She learned that I had picked the derev. She came over told me something that the old ladies used to say, "don't tell anyone where you picked the leaves." I had to laugh out loud. It was so old school and so funny.
Cycling around the past few weeks, I saw derev everywhere. I was not sure if they were still good to pick or if they were too tough. They certainly looked bigger than the leaves I had picked. One day, I stopped mid-ride and checked. The leaves were indeed huge, they covered my entire handspan, and they seemed tender. But, what do I really know. I had only picked leaves once.
I made a mental note of a few rich clump of leaves and went out a few days later to pick the leaves. Usually, when picking leaves the technique is to pick them one at a time plucking them at the bottom of the leaf where the stem started. The leaves are then put in a sack and then sorted upon returning home.
This time I did not want to be parked on the roadside for a long time while I picked leaver. So, I took pruning shears with me. Instead of picking leaf by leaf, I clopped entire sections of new growth vine one to two yards long. I cut about thirty of these and three them in the back of my 4Runner. I then returned home, set out a lawn chair, lit a pipe and began picking the leaves off of the vine.
There was another advantage of doing this at home. I was better able to sort the leaves. I made four piles of good leaves: Small, medium. and large. The fourth pile was leaves that were a bit torn or had a tear in them. These leaves are used to line the pot or pan in which the sarma would be cooked. I think this process was better than picking leaves one at a time off the vine. I am not so sure this will catch on, I will have to check on that with Ara Topouzian who is the guru of grape leave protocol.
I am guessing there were approximately 250 leaves in this second harvest. This should fulfill Judy's derev needs for the rest of the year.