The reinvention of Albanian cuisine, by Tristan Rutherford
South China Morning Post, October 2017
From 1945 to 1991 Albania was the Mediterranean’s hermit kingdom. A culinary North Korea where cookbooks were burnt and recipes were lost to humanity. Its coastline’s juicy Adriatic prawns – beloved in neighbouring Italy and Greece – were presumed to be inedible and were fed instead to pigs.
“We are trying to preach the ingredients forgotten by modern society,” explains Albania’s most celebrated chef, Bledar Kola, aged 33. “Take this kulumri,” he says, holding up a wild sour plum native to Albania. “It’s sensationally tasty but nobody could remember how to cook it.” That’s why Albanian chefs like Kola, who most recently worked in Copenhagen’s Michelin three-star restaurant Noma, have returned home to ignite one of Europe’s most inventive culinary scenes.
Bledar and I are drinking pressed cherry juice in his new Slow Food restaurant Mullixhiu in the buzzing Albanian capital of Tirana. To exemplify the uniqueness of Albanian ingredients he hands me a single piece of cow’s cheese. Its gooey chew and beef tang are like eating an animal in pasture; a bovine toffee you won’t find anywhere else. “Albania doesn’t produce cars or watches,” explains Kola. “All we have is this four-seasons-in-a-day topography.” That means 350km of sun-licked virgin shore. Hillside vineyards that have flourished since the Roman Empire. And Alpine mountains that rival Switzerland – for both grazing and skiing. The only trick is to fit all the flavours onto one plate.
That’s why Kola is making me his eight-course tasting menu for €15 (note that Albania is categorically the cheapest country in Europe). The amuse-bouche is a ball of kadiaf, a shredded wheat legacy from a Turkish occupation that lasted four centuries until 1912. Normally a sweet dessert, here it’s topped with a yoghurt so tangy it could have been squeezed from a billy goat outside. That crisply plumb ball is followed by a swirly potage of zucchini flour, mustard and olive oil: a peasant’s dish teleported to the 21st century.
The peasant analogy is apt. Although Kola has worked in Europe’s greatest forage- and farm-to-table kitchens, including Fäviken in Northern Sweden, Mullixhiu is a time machine of forgotten Albanian flavours. The restaurant name translates as mill. And sure enough, three traditional wooden mills grind heirloom wheat varietals in the reception area. Walls are made from dried sweetcorn husks sandwiched between panes of glass. Each table place has its own private drawer stocked with each setting’s knives and forks. Diners must also pour their own Qafshtama mineral water sourced from 1,350m up in the Albanian alps – Mullixhiu eschews the environmentally toxic fad for Aqua Panna popular in Tirana’s other top restaurants.
What time Kola saves on table setting he spends on table time with guests. He hand delivers dishes thick and fast, including ‘shepherds diet’, which features curd and ice cubes in a cocktail shaker, poured over a teeny-tiny candied meat pie that squeals with taste louder than a pig in Parma. Then sweetbreads so plumply crisp with a jus so piquant it’s like gorging the world’s greatest KFC popcorn chicken and barbeque sauce. The finest dish is the dromsa. This is an Albanian green porridge of seeds and saffrons that pings around the palette sweet then sour, salty and bitter, with an umami punch that shouts ‘you won’t find this flavour anywhere else in Europe this century.’
Another of Albania’s top chefs, 36-year-old Fundim Gjepali, also came home in 2016. This time from Rome, where he won Italy’s coveted Gran Prix of Mediterranean Cuisine. In a gesture that wouldn’t be possible elsewhere in Europe, he personally leads me around his bustling kitchen half hour before lunchtime service. “Almost everything you see is from our own farm”, explains Gjepali. “In Albania we never used fertilizers as we were cut off from the rest of the world. The entire country has always been organic, whether we liked it or not.” By appearing as a judge on the local version of MasterChef, Gjepali hopes to show Albanians who haven’t yet witnessed Europe’s plastic-fantastic approach to farming that biodynamic is best.
With dishes this good Gjepali can inspire an entire generation of young Albanian chefs. His tasting menu features a trout landed in the sweet waters of the River Tamara near Lake Shkodra, with a pistachio crust sourced from orchards near Greece. “Normally we’d serve this fish raw but then I wouldn’t have a job!” laughs Gjepali. Then another contemporary take on the traditional, a farm egg poached in hot yoghurt, thatched with black truffles, which intoxicate with a mossy stink as they warm.
In a final surprise I’m given a between-the-courses tour of Albania’s best stocked wine cellar by Padam’s sommelier Klodi Kuka. (Like the thousands of hoteliers, bar owners and creatives who have moved back from London, New York and Milan, Kuka recently returned from a 10-year wine career in Germany.) He explains: “During our communist period we only produced two wines: red and white. With technology and experience we are resurrecting near extinct grapes on a terroir that’s as varied as Italy.” For dessert he opens a bottle of Kantina Nurellari 2013 superiore that fights in the glass like the bastard son of a Riesling-Chardonnay one night stand. There are only 1,000 bottles in the world – well, 999 now – all of them unavailable at your local supermarket.
Nowhere is Albania’s pairing of unique ingredients, lost wines and returning talent more evident than at Uka Farm. Flori Uka, 32, came back from Italy to manage a two-hectare biodynamic plantation this his father, a former Albanian Minister of Agriculture, started in 1996. “My father’s dream was to create a living laboratory of edible Albanian flora,” says Uka. “Yet with healthy fauna co-existing alongside, like birds and bugs that prey on predators.” His vision isn’t airy-fairy. “The restaurant we started here in 2014 is fully booked because people can see our giant kale and heirloom apples before they eat them. After all, before chemical fertilizers and pesticides began a hundred years ago we were healthier as human beings.”
Nowadays Flori spends much of his time inside Uka Farm’s brand-new wine cellar. Here he collates ultra-rare Albanian grapes including cërujë. The viticulturally bizarre vines take a century to climb atop mulberry trees, a full 20m into the air, in the lake district in Albania’s north. Only in exceptional years, 2017 being one, is the yield large enough to be harvested. Uka purchases the lot, making me the only man on the planet – at this moment – to be drinking this raucous vintage of spirit-rich white.
I also try a 12-day-old kallmet. It’s another wholly indigenous grape, a roaring goblet of fire reared near the Greek border. Plus Albania’s first boutique gin spirit, which will hit the market next year. “In Albania we still eat pasta pomodoro and import €50m of Italian wine,” says Uka. “But you can taste the change in the air.”
Click here to read more Mediterranean travel stories from writers Tristan Rutherford and Kathryn Tomasetti