The third in a series of 52 interviews with Albanian women in the public sphere #52GraShqiptare.
A love of food has been in Dhurata Thanasi’s family for generations and she is a well known, well-loved, and well-respected figure in the Albanian foodie scene. Dhurata is a businesswoman, slow food advocate, initiator of the Food Revolution, mother, educator, blogger, and owner of the popular restaurant ‘Luga e Argjendte’. She holds a degree in Albanian Literature and Journalism, a Masters degree in Public Administration and Policy, and recently graduated as an agro-environmental engineer.
Tell me about yourself as if we were meeting for the first time?
My family has been living in Tirana for generations. I was born here but my grandfather originally came from Vlora to study at the Harry Fultz American school in the 1930s. Between him and my grandmother Aferdita Thanasi who studied at the Queen Mother Girls School and who also had a love and passion for food, you could say it has been in our family for many years.
I studied Albanian literature and journalism in Tirana before working for a year as an editor. I then got a job with the United Nations where I worked for six years, during which time I met my Italian husband. Due to his work, we travelled a lot, living in countries where he was appointed such as Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Belgium. I followed him and managed to work in each country until one year I was offered a job as a technical officer with the World Health Organisation in Rome. At this time, my husband had been given a job in Macedonia and I made the decision to not take my job and to follow him there- for love you might say!
During this time I became pregnant and gave birth to our son and shortly after we moved to the US. Living in Boston, we both studied Masters programmes and I graduated in Public Administration and Policy. Then in 2011, my husband was posted to, yes you guessed it, Tirana!
How did your interest in food transition into your work?
When we arrived in Tirana, I got a job with an organisation working in the rural environment sector. I was in charge of connecting the products that farmers had, with the market in the bigger towns and cities. I spent my time travelling to these rural places that no one knew or was interested in and I realised how beautiful it was. You know, you travel the world and visit all of these incredible places then you come back to your own country and realise you don’t know it at all.
I always had this passion for food and as I was exploring these remote villages- Diber, areas around Shkoder, Korce, Peshkopi-and I was finding all of these rare products that no one in the city even knew existed. Furthermore, no one appreciated it. I would visit these places where people grow amazing mountain tea in their garden but serve up foreign tea in the coffee shop. In Boston, you could pay $5 a jar for this tea, yet here they didn’t even consider its value.
I started to ask for products and to take them home and cook with them. I invited friends to my home to sample what I was cooking and sent photo’s back to the farmers of what I was creating. I started to cook western foods with Albanian ingredients and my friends would say “wow where did you find that” and the farmers became proud that their humble ingredients could be used in such ways.
From there, I began to write about the foods I found and the things I created. Then, the newly opened Shqiptarja.com reached out to me and asked me if I would like to have a regular column writing about food, these wonderful authentic ingredients and the places I sourced them from.
During this time, my relationship with the farmers and producers grew. I think at first they didn’t trust me or thought I was crazy, but as they saw what I was doing and that people were interested in their products, they trusted me more and more. The column grew and it became really popular and famous- in fact, there was a time that it was getting more clicks than politics!
By then, I had a lot of followers and I decided to open Instagram as well, due to my love of photography. My Instagram and my blog were a huge success but no one knew my face. I would receive messages asking me “where is your restaurant, we want to visit” and I would reply that I had no restaurant.
The demand for the products I was writing about increased and people kept asking me to open a shop. I knew there was a need for it but I kept thinking “how can I do this?” I knew I wanted to do it on my own, so using my own savings I told my husband that I was going to open a shop. I said, look you have had your career, now it is my turn!
It was something of a girls venture- I enlisted the help of a female design student and Pezana Rexha from Pana and we started work. I wanted to reuse and upcycle so we used old bricks and made shelves out of old hydraulic pipes. Finally, we opened and it was a success, in fact, many of the farmers I worked with have now gone on to supply many of the big stores.
We sold these lovely ingredients that I had sourced like tea, jam, wine, olive oil, and then dough products such as pasta and trahana. From there I started to organise gatherings where we would talk and discuss food- how we can protect the land and how we can eat seasonally and well. It was then that I realised I wanted to impart this message to children as well.
I reached out to the Directors of schools and asked if I could come and speak to the children. Of course, they said yes, so I filled my bags with say 1000 ALL of food with money from my own pocket and I went.
When you give kids choices, let them experiment, let them play and teach them to create things, food becomes fun. They stop saying “no I don’t like that” and they start to enjoy it. I would make juices with spinach in, concealing that fact from the students, then I would ask them what they thought was in it, and when I would reveal the spinach they would be shocked! Then we would discuss the benefits of these ingredients, for digestion, immunity, and general health. It gave me so much satisfaction working with these children, so from there I went to highschools and engaged older children as well.
Then, I decided that I wanted to study more about this area. I had the passion, the hands-on knowledge, the love of food, but I wanted the technical knowledge as well. So, I made the decision to study again and for four years I did not have a single day off except in the summer. I worked, travelled for work, wrote and studied for four years solid between 2011-2015 and I graduated in Environmental and Agricultural Engineering.
How has your journey shaped who you are?
I am pleased, I have totally changed as a person. Food is not just a commodity to fill the stomach, but it is a way of life and a concept. We have to see food as a vehicle of change in every aspect of our life. How can we use our brain to educate each other, how we can recycle, reduce waste, and be sustainable.
We need to think twice when we do, use or create anything- is it going to cause harm?
What were your biggest obstacles?
The toughest moment for me was firstly quitting my job. It was a huge decision and it required a lot of courage, thinking, and reflection. I kept asking myself “am I able to do this?” The whole sector was, and still is very male orientated and I knew I would be going out of my comfort zone. My friends and colleagues thought I was mad- mad to leave a good job, good salary, good life, and for what? To go and cook! They were shocked but I said, “I have to do this, at least I will try”.
I had to prove to myself that I could do it. My husband- my friend and the best person I have ever known never doubted me for a moment and supported me completely, but still, it was tough.
Today, they call me a successful woman, but I don’t like this description. I struggle every day and I constantly say to myself “did I do this right or did I do wrong?” I never rest on my laurels and it is perpetual effort to be better and better. You must remember also that I cannot be successful without the farmers. Yes, I can have Albania’s first organic shop bringing products from all over the country, but the reality is that they are still struggling. Lack of money and mass emigration- they struggle to see a future for themselves and that means that my work is not done. I am trying to be successful, I am trying to do things- Albania is a country in development and we need to learn to work together more, without prejudice.
If you could go back and speak with your younger self, what would you say to her?
When I was 18 years old, my uncle was put in jail as a political prisoner. My family had been very well known and respected and suddenly everything changed- I was expelled from school and it became the darkest moment of my life. I wasn’t allowed to attend university and had to watch all my friends going and I would just cry and cry. After some years, it was the 90’s and the situation changed. Finally, I could study, I got my first job as a journalist and all the bad memories became history.
This taught me that every bad thing happens for a reason. If I had not passed through these dark days, I would not be who I am or where I am now. Mistakes, successes- all of my journey for better and worse led me here today. So what would I tell young Dhurata? I would tell her “because of you, today I am this woman so thank you.”
This article was originally published on The Balkanista.