04 May 2008

Of wild garlic and onions on a wet walk

I went hiking in one of the lower canyons of Al Archa National Park on May Day with Ksana (above), a student from Turkmenistan, and Valeri, who teaches literature at the same university where I work. We were accompanied by Kalipa, Valeri’s wife of eight years, an ethnic Kyrgyz originally from the Pamir and Tien Shan mountains. She drove us there and back, but stayed in the vehicle reading while the three of us worked our way upstream into a stand of greening birch trees and, finally, into some low-hanging clouds. I have hiked with Valeri, an ethnic Russian, as much as I have with anyone in the two years I’ve been in Kyrgyzstan. We are both faculty at the same university, he has been to parties at my flat, and never once mentioned Kalipa or being married.

On our way downstream, we crossed paths with a young woman walking a German shepherd trailed by a man, presumably her husband, leading a slow horse on top of which sat a boy about five years old who was holding a muddy bunch of wild onions that was almost as big as him. Foraged food makes up part of the diet for any rural Kyrgyz people. The scene, which I failed to photograph, could have occurred a hundred years ago.

Valeri stripped a plastic bag of pale young birch leaves, which he claims are more potent than when they are fully developed, and are vital to some of the teas he crafts. After filling some plastic jugs with water from the same well operated by one of the leading local bottlers, we also harvested some wild garlic, which were soon to be sautéed in olive oil with fresh red peppers and mixed with cooked pasta, grated Parmesan cheese, a little unheated olive oil, salt and additional dried spices.