03 March 2023

 In Albania's Tourism Revival, Food Plays a Central Role

After a century of unrest, Albania's welcome remains undimmed as refugees return to piece its national identity back together one dish at a time.

As I stroll the rainbow-painted Soviet blocks of Tirana, Gjergj invites me home for lunch. A pensioner in a tweed cap, with a face as smooth and readable as olive wood, he leaves his game of backgammon on a bench beneath the furry talons of Lebanese cedars when he sees me. “I found you,” he quietly declares, insisting that his wife has already set the table. Soon I am seated before a starched tablecloth laden with tart mountain cheeses, glistening pickles, rosemary-spiked lamb, and pomegranates.

The Zoe Hora hotel, the riviera’s first luxury property, is the result of a government initiative to revitalize Albanian villages. Jenny Zarins
Despite a century of deep national trauma, Albanians still abide by besa—the ancient code of honor—to embrace all strangers as missing family. After Mussolini invaded his Adriatic neighbor only 27 years into Albania’s independence (after more than four centuries of Ottoman rule), European and Albanian Jews were sheltered in the mountains by Muslims and Catholic villagers like Gjergj’s father; guarded by summits as fierce as eagles’ wings. “None were ever lost,” Gjergj tells me in Italian—his own language is a barbed wire of Gjs, Xhs, Shs and Njs, on which Latin, Greek, and Turkish words snag.
For the crime of hailing from unbreakable Catholic stock, Gjergj was later imprisoned under Enver Hoxha’s post-war Stalinist regime—a nightmarish exaltation of Tito’s neighboring Yugoslavia that kept the nation under surveillance, hermetically sealed, and agrarian for the remainder of the 20th century. Then in 1997 came civil war; when the new democratic government lost the people’s money, depots of old Russian and Chinese Kalashnikovs were raided and Albanians fled, the new refugees of Europe. The past is behind them now, but not forgotten—as engraved on minds as the nation’s summits are with goat tracks. Behind every smile is a story—many worthy of a Netflix deal—and an invitation to hear it over home-grown food and raki, twice-distilled from garden vines—the most judgement-melting, heart-expanding liquid form of generosity.

At Mrizi i Zanave, owners and brothers Altin and Anton Prenga are responsible for Albania’s Slow Food movement—part of their effort to protect endangered endemic ingredients like as mountain-dried mishavinë cheese.
It is in the mosaics of eastern and southern Mediterranean dishes that Albanians are reassembling their broken identity after a generation in recovery—slowly marinating a new sense of pride in their Arcadian nation, now on the brink of E.U. membership. “We’re like the Italians, food is central to our psyche, yet no one’s heard of Albanian cuisine—or even Albania,” chuckles Tani Duka, an architect with droll, wolverine eyes who walks me around the Blloku quarter, the former residential district of the Politburo that’s become a foodie enclave clattering with plates and confidence. Nearby, at Gzona, 28-year-old Bleri Dervishi, a dimpled chemist-chef, formerly of three-Michelin-starred Azurmendi, masterminds seasonal “memory” dishes of the homeland. Having fled to Italy by rubber dinghy at the age of four, he’s now kerpow-ing crab-apple pectin into chewing gum in his lab, chalking up new formulas to crack the nation’s first Michelin star.

It took those who left Albania as child migrants, working up through the kitchen hierarchies of Europe from plate washers to head chefs, to recognize its sustainable farm-to-table potential; by default, a nation of subsistence farmers, artisanal family producers, and foraged bounty. At Pazari i Ri market, women with calves carved by steep inclines sit at stalls stacked with honey, like jars of stolen morning light. Wild gentian and çaj mali mountain teas are neatly weighed out in bundles; loam-scented tables heaped with okra, persimmon, figs, and quince. Beyond Tirana’s rumpled Dajti mountains is the rest of Albania, resounding with the fairy music of free-roaming flocks. Here a stocky build and hooves are still more useful than wheels: with the isolationist regime, civilian cars and access to 280 miles of wild coastline were strictly forbidden. When Hoxha’s allegiance switched to Maoist China at the height of the Cold War, underground nuclear bunkers were built instead of roads. 

When driving toward the Albanian Riviera, travelers are rewarded with ocean views from Llogara Pass.

After communism, confiscated cooperative land was re-apportioned in tiny parcels; gardens like craft patchworks, hand-sewn together by wattle. “There’s a family behind every ingredient I use, and I know them all by their first names. I get really emotional about that,” says Bledar Kola, alumnus of Le Gavroche, Fäviken and Noma, who gifts bottles of wine to people queuing outside Mullixhiu, his restaurant in the Grand Park of Tirana. Fitted out like an alpine hut, it is the perfect spartan stage for his minimalist revival of the northern highlands’ cucina povera, using ancient fermentation techniques, foraged fruits, and medicinal plants such as purslane and burdock.

Kola fled Albania at the age of 15, first by speedboat to Italy, then as a stowaway to England, clinging perilously to the chassis of a truck, at one point getting dragged along the asphalt. “In London, I had to say I was Italian to get work,” he says. “Otherwise, it was ‘But don’t you Albanians all steal cars?’ I felt I was betraying my country.” Now he proudly delivers Albanian history lessons in eight courses, unearthed national heroes served at desk-like bakers’ tables. After a palate cleanser of Cornelian cherry juice—a glass of cloudy papal mauve—comes trahana, a savoury porridge, and dromsa, Balkan pici pasta still served in Arbëresh communities in Calabria. At the end, there’s boza, the Ottoman fermented cereal-based drink—at once creamy, fizzy, sweet, and sour. After hours, Kola pulls out a label-less bottle made from Shesh grapes, the fruit of Albania’s ancient viticulture revival, as weighty as a Piedmontese red and palpably alive. When I leave, the stars above the Dajti mountains look bloated and seem to blur with meteorite tails.

My head is mysteriously clear when I leave the next morning to drive north to Lezhë province, the epicenter of the new food movement, with Kreshnik Topollaj, a chatty Bektashi Muslim who wears a felt qeleshe hat (“half of a cosmic egg”), tilted on his head with the steez of a rapper. As he talks, the clouds dissipate to a faint flock of geese on the horizon. Outside a boy sells rabbits from the back of his car. Fields are flecked with yellow goldenrod; branches offer pomegranates like the arms of expert jugglers. The drive can be slow, even on this main road to Lake Shkodër on the Kosovan border. The Dinaric Alps loom overhead; toppling stacks of rock daggers and glacial fortresses. Cow herds dither before us, their bells momentarily picking up to trotting tempo.

A lone cloud rests like a volcano plume on the hillside as we pass through Fishtë to Mrizi i Zanave Agroturizëm, dedicated to Gjergj Fishta, beloved early-20th-century friar and national poet. Its owners, brothers Altin and Anton Prenga, started Albania’s Slow Food foundation in part to protect endangered ingredients such as mountain-dried mishavinë cheese, then made by only three families in tribal Kelmend. The brothers worked in kitchens in Italy for 11 years before, in 2006, returning to the home they fled as children; they recall men waving Kalashnikovs in their grandfather’s fields, and still find bullet cases in the vineyards. They built a restaurant rock by rock—a temple to heirloom produce, which now supports more than 400 families; its incense, rosemary-infused woodsmoke from the outdoor oven strung with rosaries of drying chilis. “The most fantastic food comes from people looking after three cows and 10 fruit trees,” says Altin, a 40-year-old as flushed as a Cox apple by outdoor work and evangelical zeal. In 2016, they restored the derelict cottage they were born in: “It was like piecing together our identities again. You have to be proud to be a farmer.”

A path marked by wild cyclamen leads to a series of barns that once housed political prisoners. “Our food culture was destroyed by communism; people ate square white bread, square white cheese… In Hoxha’s day this would have been like growing hashish,” he says, laughing, sliding back an iron door to the smoke room, where beef torsos hang before a wood stove. In another barn, shelves of cheeses are catalogued with the care of museum artifacts. Villagers in long black socks nobly push wheelbarrows of produce like artists delivering their latest commission.
The next morning, we drive towards Patok Lagoon, where fishermen throw out nets before stilted huts and flamingos limber up in the water’s reflection. At Mystic Rose, a local institution on the water’s edge, we lunch on flia—crêpes with fermented cream, cooked in a wok-like iron saç in the ashes of a hearth, stoked by men lit like the subjects of an Old Master painting. “The more sacrifice in making the dish, the more hospitality it conveys,” says Diella Loshi, a gap-toothed Sophia Loren in her 60s, who camped in the woods here in the 1990s before building a home and opening a restaurant in her living room. She brings out plates of sea bass—blackened and heavy as pewter trays—and mounds of prawns the size of fists. “Chinese officials went crazy when they came here,” she laughs. Under communism shellfish, considered “insects,” were fed to the pigs—along with plump Albanian oysters, rotten black potatoes (truffles), and toadstools (porcini).

At Rapsodia in coastal Shëngjin, Alfred Marku—a charming beardy man, stocky as an olive trunk—constructs delicate mezze of seafood with wild chicory and sambuca flowers. His stories are as seasoned and well paced as his plates. As a 14-year-old fleeing civil war, he crossed the Greek border on foot and was greeted with a police gun to the head and a night in jail. Octopus and wild fennel scented his perilous moonlit speedboat journey to Trentino where, at 15, he camped in abandoned houses. Chestnut semifreddo sweetens his ascent to accomplished Italian chef, with a triumphant after-rush of oregano.

The next day, I gaze out to the flats of Bari from the Cape of Rodon; the white of the waves now harmless, as if peacefully applied by putty knife on an Adriatic-blue canvas. We follow the coastline south to Northern Epirus: a vision of terraced citrus groves and Kalinjot olives with the open crowns of laurel wreaths. Here, the Adriatic gives way to the Ionian and the Albanian Riviera starts its ascent to Corfu—a rocky shoreline of umbrella pines, shingled coves and sunlit bream-y waters, where locals speak an archaic Greek dialect and roll vine leaves into vinegary cigars. We spend the day on Dhërmi beach, until the afternoon bleaches out like a vintage Polaroid. Then we head out to explore—the menthol of pines our smelling salts—stumbling along makeshift paths that sprout with wild saffron, crunching over the red-spined fruit of strawberry trees to secret coves, where locals spearfish and dive for sea urchins. We prise one open and pick out the spongy tongues from inside; little mouthfuls of ocean, zinc-y and sweet. The fiercest shells protect the softest of hearts.  

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