It is often said that the Mediterranean diet is amongst the world’s healthiest, and an innumerable number of articles, journals, books, medical experts and dieticians all the food of the region, and rightly so. As a consequence, the food, particularly that of Italy and the south of France, has conquered the world.
The same also goes, to a slightly lesser degree, for the food of Spain and other countries sharing a Mediterranean coastline. French, Spanish and Italian chefs have become international celebrities on TV and in print, cooking and producing amazing dishes that millions try to replicate at home. But France, Italy and Spain aren’t the only countries with cuisine influenced by the produce of this wonderfully sunny and fertile region.
Why isn’t Albanian food better known? It is, after all, Mediterranean, and its best dishes are as healthy and tasty as anything its better-known neighbours can offer. As it is, it remains a secret, mostly known only to those lucky enough either to have been brought up on it or to have been exposed to it through visiting.
Truth is, the majority of Albanians eat great fresh food. It’s something they take for granted. In almost every Albanian home women have, for generations been taught to cook using fresh ingredients grown nearby. For much of its history the great majority of the population were peasant farmers and to cook with each season’s crop was the only way of surviving the extreme poverty many of us experienced. Even during the hard times, the land sustained us. Our food followed the seasons and the traditions of the region in which it was grown. Albanian food is and has always been – something that ‘foodies’ in many countries only dream of – both seasonal and local.
Albania is blessed with great weather and can grow almost everything grown by its neighbours. Blessed with rivers, lakes and coastal waters, fish stocks thrive. The climate and terrain naturally favours healthy livestock. Each season, the fields are full of fresh vegetables and fruit. Our hillsides are perfect for the production of olives, that healthiest of stone fruits. What more could we ask? Nature’s larder is well stocked.
Fortunately, genetically modified food is almost unknown in Albania. Most food production remains organic – farmers using old methods. The chemically-driven production methods of vast agro-businesses abroad aren’t either necessary or practical here. Most farming remains small-scale and family-owned.
Junk food is a fairly recent arrival even in Tirana, remaining low key; even in such a cosmopolitan capital, it hasn’t yet overwhelmed the local food culture as it has in much of the “developed” world. Let’s hope things remain as they are – with healthy nourishing food being the norm rather than the exception. The lesson from countries that gave in to processed food production and the easy temptations of high-fat, high-calorie and sugary snacks, is that levels of obesity rise and health standards decline.
As is now being realised in countries belatedly alerted to the dangers, we must limit the promotion of junk food. Recently Britain – recognising in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis that obesity shortens lives and reduces the chances of survival of those affected by the virus – has announced a campaign to improve the eating habits of a nation that was all too easily seduced by a fast-food lifestyle.
Levels of obesity there are amongst the highest in the world while its supermarkets are full of heavily processed pre-prepared food. There are few high streets that don’t have a host of takeaway businesses selling takeaway fried food, heavy on fat, salt, sugar and additives. We have the advantage of being able to recognise the dangers before such habits gain too strong a hold on the young.
If junk food colonises our towns and cities, it will, as has happened elsewhere, swamp the indigenous fresh food culture. If our young people are tempted into a fast food lifestyle, then the demand for fresh cooked food at home will wither away and cooking skills lost. Instead of food being, as it is now, an opportunity for families to cook, eat and spend time together, food is reduced to fuel and convenience. And the sad fact is, unhealthy food habits inevitably lead to unhealthy bodies.
We should treasure our wonderful tradition of growing and making food at home from our fresh locally harvested ingredients. However, there are no guarantees that the food industry will allow things to remain that way. There is a great deal of money in cheap processed food. It is a powerful lobby, with a great deal of money with which to influence our political representatives, so we should guard against it.
One of the first things we did as our son was growing up is to teach him to cook. He loves it and now that he has moved away, he has a fine repertoire of dishes that, despite working a long and arduous day, he cooks fresh each evening for himself and his girlfriend. His girlfriend cooks too but ruefully admits that he is the better of the two. One cooks, the other washes up – that way duties are shared.
Passing on kitchen skills to our children is an investment in the future health of generations to come. Teaching our children both to cook and to shop sensibly and economically is a basic life skill. Who, with a better alternative ready at home, would prefer a greasy burger wrapped in paper to a delicious dish of meat and seasonal vegetables? Easy to prepare and far tastier.
At present, cooking lunches and dinners for the family in Albania remains central to our national life. It is heartwarming to see men and women shopping fresh each morning for the ingredients for that day’s food. It’s so obvious a tradition that we take it for granted: it is part of the fabric that keeps families and generations together. How lovely it is to eat a freshly cooked lunch on a hot summer day. And if time is short, a fresh salad accompanied by our delicious Albanian-produced cheeses and charcuterie and bread from the local bakery is more than enough. And if we’re really lucky, we can follow it with a siesta, just like our neighbours in Greece and Italy do!
Every morning, in Albanian towns and cities, farmers arrive to sell their fresh fruit, vegetables, olive oil and dairy products direct to the public. You don’t, as in many other countries, ever need to drive to the shop. On almost every street corner little shops sell excellent cheap and fresh produce. Shopping that way means not only do you shop cheaply, but you also have access to the best ingredients. More recently, especially in the cities, you can also arrange regular deliveries from farmers direct to your home. Even if your elderly relatives are not that mobile then the infrastructure exists for each Albanian, even on the lowest incomes, to eat some fresh food daily. Albanian food deserves praise for both its quality and value.
In or around some Albanian towns and cities internationally-owned supermarkets are now appearing. Even some of our local markets now sell imported food. To some, there is status involved in being able to buy fruits and vegetables all-year-round, no matter whether they are in season locally. But imported vegetables are neither as fresh, tasty or as good value as those bought directly from local farmers. To shop in these places costs more money, but the quality can’t compare. Why change a brilliant tradition to a worse one, just for the novelty of being able to buy figs in February?
Albania’s food traditions, like those of other Balkan countries, where poverty at times has often been extreme, are shaped both by availability and scarcity. A tradition, established over centuries, was for a big pot of stew – meat and vegetables slowly cooked, the flavours blending together, becoming greater than the sum of its parts. Our finest dishes are as good as anything anywhere in the world, let alone the Mediterranean. The internationally famous British TV chef, Rick Stein, visited Albania and was amazed at the quality of the food – he even cooked one of our great national dishes, lamb cooked with yoghurt (Tavë Kosi), and published the recipe in one of his best-selling cookbooks. On Vice.com’s Munchies channel the famous rapper and chef, Action Bronson, who is part-Albanian, can be seen preparing baklava in the Albanian way, using butter rather than oil, as is done in the Turkish tradition. This, in my opinion, and that of most Albanians, is what makes Albanian baklava the best in the world. Bronson, along with a number of other Albanian celebrities based abroad, is another to extol the virtues of our food.
One of our finest chefs, Bledar Kola, not only explores ways in which to refine many of our traditional dishes at his superb restaurant Mullixhiu, in Tirana but also published a cookbook in Germany, where he is well-known and treated as a recognised authority on fine dining. Mullixhiu also focuses on the making of many of our traditional Albanian breads, using a wide variety of different flours, including maize flour, which has been one of our staples over the years, helping us survive even in the hardest times. Now, people can enjoy it both for flavour and health, not just necessity. More recently Bledar has opened a food stall in the centre of Tirana, Sita, which takes a new approach to fast food. Bledar states his intention is to “Re-imagine traditional Albanian dishes . . . and serve them at an affordable price. We feel everyone should have access to good quality food. In Tirana, takeaways are usually limited to burgers or at best low-quality Greek food.”
In Fishtë, Lezhë County is Mrizi i Zanave Agroturizëm, a restaurant and hotel sitting within its own farm. It seeks to replicate commercially what Albanians have done at home for centuries; to cook local seasonal food. While everything is produced to a professional standard, nothing that you will find on your plate is alien to the traditions of Albanian home cooking. Its success proves that not only does the Albanian food tradition still retain an appeal, but that it can work on many levels, just as French and Italian dishes can be refined all the way from domestic cooking to haute cuisine.
It is not only the quality of our food but its range that impresses. Albanian food, true to its peasant origins and the desire to make use of everything edible, has long been a pioneer of that now fashionable approach to food, head to tail dining. From stews made with a calf or sheep’s head (Paçe koke) to those made with lamb intestines (Të brendshme qingji jahni) to a vast variety of meatballs (qofte), nothing is wasted. And then there is our range of pies and pastries, including byrekë, përpeq, japrak, kollopita or lakror, each with a choice of filling. Vegetarian tastes are also easily catered for, with dishes like white bean soup (jahni me fasule), corn pie casserole, or baked vegetables and cheese (fërgesë tirane).
International observers have recognised that Albanian cuisine falls within the category of the “Mediterranean diet,” and this is now given as one of the likely reasons Albania has such a surprisingly high life expectancy – including low levels of cardiovascular and coronary disease – compared to many other countries with a similar economy and challenges. This is known by some experts as the “Albanian paradox”.
What this tells us is that Albanian cuisine is something to be proud of and to protect. Our shared food culture gives us good health, happiness and togetherness – all things to cherish and love. Let’s ensure we not only maintain our heritage but strengthen it for the future: our children and our children’s children will have cause to thank us.