After communism, confiscated cooperative land was redistributed into tiny plots; gardens like handcrafted quilts, hand-stitched with acacia. “There’s a family behind every ingredient I use, and I know them all by first name. I am very moved about this,” says Bledar Kola, a former student of Le Gavroche, Fäviken and Noma, who offers bottles of wine to people queuing outside Mullixhiu, his restaurant in Tirana’s Grand Park. Styled like an alpine hut, it’s the perfect spartan scene for its minimalist revival of northern highland cucina povera, using ancient fermentation techniques, foraged fruits and medicinal plants such as purslane and burdock.
Kola fled Albania at the age of 15, first by speedboat to Italy, then as a stowaway to England, clinging dangerously to the chassis of a truck, tying himself to a moment dragging on the asphalt. “In London, I had to say I was Italian to find work,” he says. “Otherwise it was ‘But don’t you Albanians steal cars?’ I felt like I was betraying my country. Today, he proudly delivers lessons in Albanian history in eight courses, unearthing national heroes served at desk-like bakers’ tables. After a palate cleansing of Cornelian cherry juice – a glass of cloudy papal mallow – comes trahana, a savory porridge, and dromsa, the Balkan pici pasta still served in Arbëresh communities in Calabria. At the end, boza, the Ottoman drink made from fermented cereals, at the same time creamy, sparkling, sweet and sour. After hours, Kola pulls out an unlabeled bottle made from Shesh grapes, the fruit of the ancient Albanian viticulture revival, as heavy as a Piedmontese red and palpably alive. When I leave, the stars above the Dajti Mountains look puffy and seem to fade with meteor tails.
My head is mysteriously clear as I set off the next morning to travel north to Lezhë province, the epicenter of the new food movement, with Kreshnik Topollaj, a talkative Bektashi Muslim who wears a felt hat qeleshe (“half of ‘a cosmic egg’), leaning over his head with a rapper’s steez. As he speaks, the clouds dissipate into a faint flock of geese on the horizon. Outside, a boy is selling rabbits from the back of his car. The fields are speckled with yellow goldenrod; branches offer grenades as the weapons of expert jugglers. The journey can be slow, even on this main road leading to Lake Shkodër on the Kosovo border. The Dinaric Alps rise above our heads; knock down stacks of rock daggers and glacial fortresses. The herds of cows hesitate in front of us, their bells momentarily taking on the rhythm of a trot.