What's cooking in...Albania

By Sandra Scott
This item appears on page 56 of the March 2012 issue.

My 93-year-old mother, who loves to cook, often says, “Nothing I make tastes like what my mother used to make.” She complains, “Today tomatoes are unblemished and red, but they have no flavor. Nothing tastes like it used to when it was home grown the old-fashioned way without fancy fertilizers and chemicals.”

Violeta putting the finishing touch on the baklava. Photo: Sandra Scott

I agree with her but didn’t realize how much our ingredients had changed in flavor until I visited Albania. The Albanian government’s isolationist policy kept it a rural country where little had changed in 50 years. However, in 2009 when I visited Albania, with a democratic government in place, things were changing.

There were a few new hotels, and roads were being upgraded. My husband, John, and I took the bus from Tirana, the capital, to Berat, fewer than three hours away. Berat, one of Albania’s oldest cities, was named to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2009. It is called “The White City” or “The City of 1000 Eyes” because of the tiers of white houses that line the hillside below the citadel.

We had been told by our guide in Tirana that the best food in Berat was at the Mangalemi Hotel Restorant (Rruga e Kalase, tek Porta e Pashait; phone [011] 355 68 2323 238, e-mail hotel_mangalemi@yahoo.com [an English version of the website should be ready early in 2012]).

We didn’t stay at the hotel but did enjoy eating at its restaurant. I ordered stuffed peppers, and the first bite caused a flavor burst from the past.

“Oh, my! This tastes just like what my mother and grandmother used to make.”

Valter Mio, the owner, chuckled and explained, “We were organic before organic was popular. Our country was so poor, we couldn’t afford to import pesticides, fertilizers or fancy engineered seeds.”

I asked him to give our compliments to the cook, who turned out to be his mother, Violeta. We were invited into the kitchen to meet her.

Violeta was busy cooking but willing to share her recipes as she continued to work. While she was washing spinach for a dish she was planning to make, she explained that her recipes were ones she had learned from her mother, who, in turn, had learned them from her mother.

My favorite was the Stuffed Peppers, but John preferred the Yogurt Lamb. We both enjoyed Violeta’s baklava for dessert. The cooking instructions did not cost anything; we paid only for the food and drinks we ordered off the menu. Each main dish cost about $5.

Yogurt Lamb (serves four)

4 ounces of boiling water

32 ounces yogurt

3 eggs

2 tbsp flour

1½ lbs of boneless lamb

4 ounces butter

Salt and pepper to taste

2 tbsp rice

Cut the lamb into one-inch pieces. Put it a roasting pan with half of the quantity of butter, then salt and pepper. Cook at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and add rice and boiling water, then continue cooking for another 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and let it cool for 15 minutes. In a bowl, mix yogurt, eggs and flour until they’re a uniform color. Mix in the rest of the butter (cut into cubes). Add the yogurt mixture to the roasting pan. Mix well with the pieces of meat and rice and put it back in the oven for another 15 minutes or until the top is brown.