Albanian Adventure

October 12, 2009 § 3 Comments

I’ve always wanted to visit Albania.  Aged 14, I wrote to the Foreign Office requesting information on how to travel to Albania and received back a helpful advice pack detailing how to travel to all the then Communist Eastern bloc countries (with difficulty).  They probably put me on a watch list back then and maybe that’s the reason why I never made it into the Civil Service despite passing those horrible exams whilst at University… I digress.  I finally made a small excursion to Albania on Sunday morning in the form of the next breakfast of the world, (according to my son George’s flag poster) which, in alphabetical order, is that of Albania.

Detailed information sources on Albanian food and specific recipes are scarce.  A good starting point was www.tourism-in-albania.com which helpfully explained “You have the option of starting your day with a continental breakfast that most Albanian hotels serve. However, if you are adventurous, you may try the traditional Albanian breakfast of pilaf, which is flavoured rice or paça – a soup made using animals’ innards.”   Whilst trawling through internet search responses I found various Albanian travel blogs and  was amused to read Gareth Morgan’s account of breakfast in the Albanian city of Shkodra – 2 espressos and 14 cigarettes.

Next stop was Lesley Chamberlain’s excellent book “The Food and Cooking of Eastern Europe” published by Penguin in 1989.  The book is both comprehensive in scope covering cuisines from East Germany and Poland in the north to Albania in the south and the then USSR in the east.  The recipes are clearly written and easy to follow and are interspersed with just the right amount of scholarly information and journalistic travel writing.

I quote the following extract both by way of background and to illustrate Ms Chamberlain’s poetic and informative style.  “Today, with a population of 3 million, Albania declares itself self-sufficient in food.  Realistically, this means some belt-tightening towards the end of winter and into mid-spring, for the cuisine is wholly dependent on the seasons rather than imports, but it remains primarily an agricultural country.  I happened to visit Albania in September, which was, at the opposite end of the scale, the high season of locally harvested food.  Peppers, tomatoes and aubergines abounded, with goat’s milk brine cheese, eggs, pasta, rice, dried beans and unadulterated bread.  There was yoghurt, a wonderful green olive oil, some passable red meat and chicken, good fish – we ate grey mullet from the sea and carp from Lake Shkodra – and to highlight the Turkish legacy wonderful sweet Oriental pastries and lokum (Turkish delight) followed at the table and in the streets with fat bunches of green grapes and slices of refreshing watermelon.”

I decided to begin our breakfast with an Albanian soup recipe from Ms Chamberlain’s book.  She writes in her soup chapter “Before the arrival of coffee in Central Europe, the first cup of soup was drunk at breakfast and the habit continued well into the nineteenth century…Magyar peasants first thought of coffee as ‘black soup’.”

Ms Chamberlain wrote back in 1989 that “it is difficult to find Albanian recipes, for there is no book on Albanian food in English.”  Times have changed and I managed to track down “The Best of Albanian Cooking” by Klementina and R. John Hysa published in the US by Hippocrene in 1998.  Mr and Mrs Hysa, whose scary black and white photos adorn the inside cover of the book (he a dead ringer for Frankenstein’s monster and she for Cruella de Ville) are an emigré couple now living in Canada.  R.John Hysa writes in the introduction to book  “All visitors we happened to host have really enjoyed the delicious Albanian dishes my wife served them.  They couldn’t resist asking her to write down some of te

Albanian breakfast soup recipe

“A less elaborate garlic soup is made in Albania by frying half a dozen cloves of garlic in a tablespoon of olive oil, sprinkling on a teaspoon of paprika and a few cups of water.  When the soup boils, add a few handfuls of vermicelli, season with salt to taste and garnish with parsley.”

In fact I substituted some home made beef stock for the water – after all, paça or paçe (see above) appears to mean a meat broth – and also substituted a handful of spaghetti snapped into bite-size lengths for the vermicelli.  The end result was basic in flavour but good.

Here is the finished soup along with kabuni, a sweet rice pilaf:

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Ms Chamberlain writes “It is difficult to find Albanian recipes, for there is no book on Albanian food in English”.  This has since been put right as I succeeded in tracking down a copy of “The Best of Albanian Cooking” by Klementina and R. John Hysa published in the US in 1998 by Hippocrene.  The authors are an emigré couple now living in Canada and their rather scary black and white photographs adorn the inside back cover, he a dead-ringer for Frankenstein’s monster and she for Cruella de Ville.  Mr Hysa writes in the introduction to the book “All visitors that we happened to host have really enjoyed the delicious Albanian dishes my wife served them.  They couldn’t resist asking her to write down some of the recipes for them or urging her to open a restaurant that couldn’t but be a ‘smashing success’..”

Flicking through the book I came across “Spitroasted Lamb Entrails”, “Stuffed Beef Spleen”, copious references to frying in margarine and a Trahana soup whose principal ingredients are water, breadcrumbs and toast. This is not a straightforward cuisine to sell to the uninitiated and I wanted to shout to R.John Hysa “Don’t do it! Don’t open that restaurant – your guests were just being polite!”  Nevertheless, the book is clearly set out and gives a real flavour of authentic Albanian cooking, though the recipes are a little sketchy.  After a little searching within, I found a sweet rice pilaf, kabuni (see above).  The use of meat stock in a sweet rice dish is unusual and the clove and cinnamon flavouring typically Albanian.  I decided to complete the breakfast with some fruit – a pear compote with an Italian influenced lemon zest flavouring,also a filo pastry pie (byrek or burek- a similar word to the Turkish pie börek) and some thick natural yoghurt for which Albania, like Bulgaria is well known.  Of all the dishes, the filo pastry pie with a feta and parsley filling was the most accessible and is probably the one I would cook again.  Here’s the pie, fresh out of the oven:

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All in all, an unusual breakfast which provided a geographical and historical insight into this enigmatic Balkan country.

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The 3 recipes from “The Best of Albanian Cooking” are reproduced below in all their sketchy glory.

Kabuni – Sweet Rice and Raisin Pilaf

Ingredients

1 cup rice
1/4 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 and 1/2 cups mutton or lamb bouillon
1/4 cup raisins
Ground cinnamon and ground cloves

Sauteé rice slightly in butter mixed with a teaspoon sugar.  Add boiling bouillon and raisins.  Simmer 10 minutes, mix with sugar and bake in moderate oven (350 degrees F) for 20 minutes.  Remove from oven, sprinkle with cinnamon and cloves.  Serve hot. 4 servings.

Jennifer’s notes: I used basmati rice which I soaked in cold water for 20 minutes before draining in a sieve and frying according to the recipe.  I increased the bouillon quantity to two cups which are the usual proportions for a pilau or pilaf.  I used a mixture of home-made chicken and beef bouillon rather than lamb as that was I happened to have in the fridge.  I added the spices to the buttery rice before adding the stock rather than at the end of cooking and I also reduced the sugar quantity by about 1/4.   I covered my pan with a lid before baking in the oven.

Byrek me gjizë – cottage cheese pie

Ingredients

1 and 1/2 cups salted cottage cheese
3 eggs
4 tablespoons chopped parsley
Salt
6 tablespoons melted butter or margarine
1 and 1/2 packets pastry leaves (phyllo dough)

Mix well cottage cheese, eggs, parsley and a bit salt, and use this mixture as filling for the pie.  Use melted butter/margarine to brush the baking pan and to sprinkle pastry leaves.  Prepare and bake the pie as in the recipe spinach pie (Brush the baking pan with some of the melted butter/margarine, and start laying pastry leaves, allowing the edges to get out of the baking pan for about one inch: lay two leaves, sprinkle or brush with butter/margarine, then lay two other leaves, and so on, until half of the leaves are laid.  Spread the filling mixture over the laid pastry leaves.  Finish laying the other half of pastry leaves, turn the edges of the bottom leaves over the pie, sprinkle with melted butter/margarine and bake in a moderate oven at 350 degrees F for about 45 minutes or until a golden brown crust is obtained.) 4 servings.

Jennifer’s notes: I used a single pack of Cypressa filo pastry and a single pack of crumbled feta cheese combined with half the quantity of other ingredients for the filling.  I baked the pie in a deepish rectangular metal tin which it didn’t fill: the halved pastry sheets formed a rustic square shape which looked quite attractive.  This pie was also good cold and survived well for a picnic.

Komposto dardhe – pears compote

Ingredients

2 pounds pears
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon grated lemon rind
1/4 cup liqueur wine
Cloves (whole)

Put peeled sliced pears with the cores removed into 2 cups cold water and lemon juice for 20 minutes.  Simmer pear peels for 10 minutes in 4 cups water in another utensil, filter the liquid, add sugar and return the syrup to the sliced pears.  Chill and stir in wine.  Season with cloves.

Jennifer’s notes: I added sugar to the water and boiled this to make a syrup rather than adding sugar afterwards.  Best to cool the syrup a little before pouring over pears as it made their edges turn soggy.  Does it mean a teaspoon rather than a tablespoon of lemon rind?  The lemon flavouring really lifts the pears and Marcella Hazan uses it in her Italian fruit salad or macedoine recipe – that Balkan influence again!

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