Albanians are piecing together their fractured history to create a Mediterranean escape like no other.
It takes time to rebuild a broken country. In Fishtë, a village of some 100 houses scattered over gentle hills and valleys 90 minutes north of the capital, Tirana, chef Altin Prenga guides me around a former political prison where Albania’s brutal communist regime (1944 to 1991) once jailed dissenters. Three decades on, he’s transformed it into a symbol of hope and renaissance.
Prenga ushers me into a pleasantly pungent room of shelves stacked high with fat wheels of kashkaval cheese while, outside, local farmers pull up at the dairy with pails of still-warm milk. Elsewhere, the compound has spaces for smoking and ageing meats, pickling vegetables, preserving fruits, fermenting wine and rakia. It’s a vision of abundance.
The raw produce comes from Prenga’s own vines, orchards and vegetable crops, as well as 400 local families he’s enlisted to the cause of Mrizi i Zanave, the country’s first agriturismo. With a strikingly lovely nine-room hotel (converted from the old family home) and an acclaimed restaurant that receives triple the booking requests it can handle, there’s a real sense of cultural revival.
Altin and his brother Anton began planting this 25-hectare plot in 2009 and opened the restaurant a year later, serving the hyperlocal ingredients and home-style cooking that are the soul of Albanian identity. “In the communist era, we lost the ability to be farmers,” says Prenga. The “disorienting wave” of capitalism that followed communism’s collapse further dislocated people from their roots. Mrizi i Zanave is his wildly successful bid to recapture the country’s food heritage before it’s lost for good. “To give it dignity again,” he humbly suggests.
Its fame has spawned three more local agriturismos and a national reawakening of authentic food traditions. This is what I’ve come to witness in Albania. Because the surest way to understand a country is through its stomach.
Located south of Croatia, north of Greece and just across the Adriatic from Italy, Shqipëria – which is Albania’s official name and means “Land of the Eagles” – has all the elements of its better-known Mediterranean neighbours. Its terrain, which encompasses lofty peaks, river canyons, fertile plains and 450 kilometres of luminous coastline, combines with a gastronomy that blends Ottoman, Mediterranean and Balkan, Islamic and Christian influences, making for an intoxicating blend.
After a spell in Prenga’s new cellar for a sneak preview of an “important wine” he’s made with semi-dried native kallmet grapes – “too young”, he sighs, “the early wines cannot tell the real story” – he escorts me and the opened bottle to dinner. I sit outside under a bower of vines with the farm bathed in golden sunlight. A honking crowd of geese bustles past, an impressive opening act to the play of plates that follows. The pristine flavours of tiny tomatoes, pesto and a salted curd-like cheese. Hot crisp burek and lakror pastries filled with pumpkin and egg, spring onion and corn. Pickled vegetables. Charcuterie, cheeses, breads. Ravioli filled with goose ragù. Baby goat with potato, the meat barely holding to the bone. A trio of desserts, including a candy-pink globe I crack open to reveal a fragrant ball of rose petal ice-cream. The entire set menu costs €18 (about $28) a head. This is what great eating looks like in Europe’s least familiar Mediterranean nation.
A tortoise crosses the road in front of us – good luck, apparently – as we drive back to Tirana the next day. In the evening I find central Grand Park and the prosaically named Artificial Lake teeming with people, the passeggiata in full flight. There’s a festival vibe but this is just Tirana on a random summer’s evening. Mullixhiu, “The Miller”, is an exceptional Albanian experience tucked among the lakefront’s bustling international bars and restaurants. The timber-clad dining room resembles a mountain hut, with designer flourishes of terracotta lampshades and vitrines stacked with dried corn cobs. Likewise the L3000 (about $40) Metamorphosis tasting menu features traditional ingredients and recipes with contemporary flair.
Highlights include fli, a charcoal-baked pastry layered with melting beef cheek and yoghurt sauce that takes half a day to prepare. And the fermented wheat dish trahana, once a fast-food staple of Roman foot-soldiers, here served with blueberries and purslane sauce. Mullixhiu’s chef, Bledar Kola, fled Albania in the 1990s, like so many others, and arrived in London clinging to the underside of a lorry. “I was taking a risk,” says Kola. “That was the reality of the time.” Starting out as a dishwasher, he eventually graduated to be sous chef of Le Gavroche, the country’s first three-star restaurant. He also did three stints at Noma in Denmark before coming home to make his mark. “Living in London as a refugee, I wanted to bring some pride to our food,” he says. “It really is the soul of our country and the culture.”
Bledar’s older brother, Nikolin, is co-founder of the RRNO Foundation, formed to “preserve, develop and promote Albanian gastronomy” following the cultural void of the communist era. To date it has rescued 300 indigenous recipes and is collaborating with chefs and academics on an encyclopedia of Albanian gastronomy, due to be published this year. “You still have that freshness and uniqueness to ingredients here that you don’t find elsewhere,” says Kola. “We want to capitalise on this and make sure it’s preserved.” Preservation and restoration are recurring themes in this fractured state.
In Berat, the World Heritage-listed Ottoman city south of Tirana in the Osum River Valley, Petrit and Muharram Çobo are reviving winemaking rituals that date back to Bronze Age Illyrians. The brothers trained in Italy before coming home in the 1990s to found Çobo Winery, which today is the country’s largest producer of wine and a pioneer of wine tourism. The wines showcase native grape varietals such as shesh, puls and the extraordinary vlosh, which is blood-red inside and out and makes wine that smells of cigar, leather and redcurrant. Çobo also produces the country’s only sparkling wine, Shendeverë – a truly excellent champagne-style drop whose name means “when you are happy drinking wine and laughing”. It’s a handy word to know here.
While in Tirana, I catch up with Elton Çaushi, the enthusiastic architect of my itinerary. He co-founded boutique agency Albanian Trip in 2007, which he operates from a three-storey house crammed with memorabilia and a garden crawling with tortoises. Lucky charms or not, 2022 has been his best year yet for business. “What I tried to do with this is to do a development project for my country. To make it more known,” he tells me.
“There’s an authenticity here that you do not find – or have to try so much harder to uncover – in other European countries. It’s still very genuine; there is still plenty of heart,” says Çaushi. To prove his point, he’s arranged for me to have dinner with Dhurata and Sofokli (“Sofo”) Daupaj at the couple’s hillside home and restaurant, Sofra e Vjetër (“The Old Table”; Tragjas i Vjetër 9400; +355 68 411 5432), above the Ionian Sea, about two-and-a-half hours south of Tirana. It is, he promises, “a place that comes out of a tale where dragons and fairies sit next to each other. It has a sort of magic.”
I fall under the spell while being chauffeured up a very steep rubbly road, past stunted oaks and muscled mountains, in a black Ford Fiesta by a chain-smoking man (a relative, apparently) and his fluffy white lapdog, Boris. We find Dhurata busy tearing figs in half and spreading them on a garden ledge to dry. She thrusts one at me – “Eat!” – then leads me into her kitchen of blackened walls and benches covered in ash and twigs, where some food is cooked under rather than over coals. Ember pots glow and flame on top of saĉ pans containing charry, puffy bread; a jumbo burek stuffed with eggplant, chicken, tomato and “lots and lots of onions”; and roasting beef joints with potato.
Under the only windowed wall lies a pile of white-ish sacks that turns out to be bound goatskins. Sofo unties one at the hoofs; Dhurata scoops out a mound of creamy, lumpy cheese that’s been maturing inside for two months – an ancient technique still practised here in the hills above the Albanian Riviera. She makes me dip in a finger. The cheese is sharp and funky but also luscious. “It’s strong but it’s good for the stomach,” says Dhurata. “It does all the good things. Now, let’s sit down!”
Sofo takes us to a table “in the nature”, facing the sea below. As I work through the generous banquet – the burek is easily the best I’ve ever tasted – and sip housemade red, Sofo sits on a stone wall and fills the warm air with melodies from his double flute. The music, the food, the wild setting and these extraordinary people feel like a portal to a Mediterranean I didn’t think still existed. When I compliment his playing, Sofo shrugs and assures me this is simple shepherd’s music, “learned with goats”. And delivered, like everything in Albania, with heart.
Image credit: Raquel Guiu Grigelmo