We are in the rugged Upper Azat Valley in Armenia, around the entrance to the rock-carved Geghard Monastery. Here you’ll notice elderly ladies clustered around roadside stalls leading to the site, selling round Gata cakes inscribed with patterns and intricate Armenian script.
The glazed pastry, made with simple ingredients, has a crusty texture that’s soft once you bite into it, and is stuffed with a sweet filling, called khoriz, made from a fluffy mixture of flour, butter, and sugar, with a consistency of baked custard.
Even if styles will vary between regions and villages, including variants like matsuni (Armenian yogurt), walnuts, or dried fruit in the filling, the most popular version comes from the villages around Geghard and Garni, where locals will decorate these round pastries with signs or designs made of leftover dough, like trees, diamond shapes, hearts, or words (such as “Geghard” itself). Gatah often accompanies Armenian tea or other hot beverages like coffee.
These delicious cakes, which are actually more like a sweetened kind of bread, have their roots in religious tradition. Armenia adopted Christianity in the fourth century after the religious leader Gregory the Illuminator baptized the royal family. Shortly thereafter, Gregory identified a sacred spring in a cave at Geghard and the first chapel was built inside. In the centuries that followed, monks built more formal structures, including the most prominent chapel in 1215, using rocks from surrounding cliffs.
Even though it’s unclear when vendors started selling Gata cakes at the site, the treats have been linked to Christian traditions for some time, and they’re particularly popular during the Christian holiday of Candlemas (Tiarn’ndaraj, or, more commonly, Derendez). According to the Armenian Apostolic Church’s calendar, the celebration occurs 40 days after Christmas, which happens every year on January the 6th, and not December the 25th, and commemorates when the baby Jesus was presented at the temple in Jerusalem. Thus, Armenian women knead their love and warmth for their family into the dough, so that each cake bestows peace and success upon their household.
Still today, this holiday is celebrated in Armenia and according to the tradition in some areas of the country fires are lit in church courtyards and in front of houses. According to tradition, observing the direction the smoke takes and withdrawing part of the ambers will bring good auspices. The withdrawn ambers are used to light the domestic tonirs, which are underground clay ovens, with either cylindrical or like an upside down shape. They have very diverse functions and are highly significant to Armenian culture. During the Tiarn’daraj they are used to boil fresh milk and cook gatah.
In addition to love and flour, a coin is often hidden inside the Gata cake, and the person to get the coin will enjoy good luck all year.
Images from web.