• There are many variations of gata and typically specific towns or regions throughout Armenia will have their own version. (iStockphoto)
Although gata is famous throughout Armenia for its links to liberty and freedom, the sweet bread is a rarer delicacy in Australia. Here's how to track down a taste of good luck in a bread loaf, according to one local cook.
By
Yasmin Noone

13 Dec 2019 - 2:19 PM  UPDATED 13 Dec 2019 - 3:04 PM

Bread is meant to be one of life’s most simple, edible treasures. But when you learn the story about gata, an Armenian bread-like treat that’s worth hunting down even if it’s just to taste once in your lifetime, you’ll realise that culinary simplicity can be shrouded in beautifully complex roots.

“If you’re someone who likes an uneven taste of sweetness in one bite, you’ll enjoy gata,” says Arpy Iskikian, a caterer and cook from Sydney’s Armenian community who learned to make the dish from extended family in Armenia five years ago. “Gata is popular in every city in Armenia and almost every family that can still make it at home.”

“Although gata is made throughout Armenia, the gata that the locals in Geghard make tastes different to gata from around the country. They use milk from their farms and put their own unique spirit into it.”

If gata were as simple as a standard serve of bread, you’d describe it as a loaf with a sweet filling. But truth be told, there’s no one rendition of the regional dish. Depending on where you are in Armenia, gata comes in many forms. But generally, it can be made as a buttery, croissant-like pastry using baking powder and bicarbonate soda or as a more traditional loaf of bread made with a raising agent like yeast. The one consistent between the two varieties, Iskikian says, is that gata is always filled with the same style of sugary goodness.

“The filling is made of flour, clarified butter (ghee), sugar, a bit of vanilla and Armenian cognac or rum,” Iskikian tells SBS. “The combination of the outside and filling together should taste a bit crumbly but moist.”

The sweet bread of Geghard monastery

The most famous version of gata is a round bread loaf marked with decorative motifs or the word ‘Geghard’, an edible representation of the Armenian village of the same name.  

Situated in the midst of Armenia’s Upper Azat Valley, you’ll find gata being sold near a grand sculpture emitting natural beauty: the monastery of Geghard. According to UNESCO, the Christian church surrounded by cliffs and defensive walls was first carved into living rock around the start of the 4th century AD.

Lining the walkway towards the rocky church in Geghard, elderly women man stalls and spruik locally made gata to visitors. “These women with beautiful wrinkles sell gata with great passion,” says Iskikian, who recently visited Geghard and tasted gata made by the famed vendors.

“Although gata is made throughout Armenia, the gata that the locals in Geghard make tastes different to gata from around the country. They use milk from their farms and put their own unique spirit into it.”

Sweet freedom, lucky bread

As history dictates, gata’s origins are closely linked to the creation of the monastery. Founded by St. Gregory the Illuminator, the church was built after Christianity was first adopted as a state religion. No one knows how but it soon became a tradition for vendors to sell gata outside the monastery.

Iskikian, however, tells a modified version of the same story, as told to her by a school teacher in her youth. “The church was carved inside the rock because, at the time, Christians were being persecuted. The church became a secret place for the Christians to pray – from the outside, you couldn’t even tell it was a church.”

She explains that the concept of bread in Christianity is linked to the Last Supper, hence its popularity as a food by the early Christians in Geghard.

“Years passed and Christianity later became recognised as a state religion of Armenia. As people started practicing Christianity more freely in Geghard, they started adding sweetness inside the bread. From then on the bread consumed, known as gata, became associated with the sweetness of liberty and freedom.”

“Gata is baked during the wedding and later, broken over the head of the couple as a blessing of good luck.”

Given gata’s sweet affiliation, it’s also used in Armenia as a symbol of good luck at weddings. “Gata is baked during the wedding and later, broken over the head of the couple as a blessing of good luck.”

The dish is often offered to friends and family before they travel. “You take gata to their house to wish them a safe journey.”

Although gata is eaten all year round, it’s also traditional to consume it during the Christian holiday of Candlemas (Tiarn’ndaraj), occurring 40 days after Christmas on the Armenian calendar.

How to track down a taste

To the best of Iskikian’s knowledge, gata cannot be found in any supermarket or bakery throughout Australia. You’ll also have a tough (but not impossible) task to see it listed on a restaurant menu.

But if you’re Armenian, are invited to the house of an Armenian who makes it at home, or order it from a caterer within the Australian-Armenian community, you may be lucky enough to sample the delicacy.

“If people really like this kind of food, they can order it from women in the Armenian community who make traditional dishes.”

As a caterer in the Armenian community, Iskikian makes gata at home for her family and friends, and in a professional capacity for events and major celebrations. Beyond the taste of sweetness and religious significance, Iskikian says gata represents great national pride.

“Anything that comes from an Armenian tradition is very appealing to me. So I would like gata to be more common in Australia.

“You know why? I want the world to know what gata is and I want the world to know that gata is Armenian – the recipe doesn’t belong to anybody else but us.”

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