Hands up who knew that you can get really great coffee in Albania? After my experiences of awful coffee in most of the Balkan countries, I was perhaps more surprised by that than anything else on my recent trip there. When I told my friends I was going on a cycling holiday in the mountains of Albania, they knew me well enough not to be alarmed, or even particularly surprised, since I typically travel to unusual destinations on my holidays. Instead, the first question that most of them asked was what the food would be like. Like them, I knew next to nothing about Albania at all, let alone its culinary delights (or otherwise). To be honest, while I enjoy good food, it’s the last thing on my mind when I book a trip to a new place, since I’ll pretty much eat anything, including all the weird and wonderful local delicacies.
Once in Albania, I wished I’d done a bit more research first, simply because learning about the food made me understand much more about the geographical, historical and cultural underpinnings of the country. In my mind, I’d lumped Albania happily along with the rest of the Balkan countries, imagining the food, language and countryside all to be very similar, but as with the language, while you can see many different elements of other Balkan countries in there, it takes its roots more from its Italian and Greek neighbours than I was expecting. Both food and language are a melting pot of all sorts of things and yet resembling none of them.
On the culinary side, I’d expected a fairly simple and bland but high quality selection of local meat, potato and vegetables based on the country’s communist roots, but it’s very far from this. On the coast, an abundance of fresh fish, simply baked with salt and lemon; further inland, an emphasis on vegetables and salads, with the meat element focusing largely on young animals such as veal, suckling pig and baby goat.
Spinach pie was ubiquitous, but totally different everywhere, reflecting regional influences ranging from the middle Eastern style burek to the Greek spanakopita. One of our favourite dishes in Gjirokastra was the traditional qifqi, which looked and tasted like a savoury scone, but was largely composed of rice, egg and mint.
The highlight for many of us were the desserts (much needed after long days of cycling up hills). In Gjirokastra we discovered the wonderful Albanian delight qumeshtore (or “milk pie”), which quickly became known as “too much snorer” due to our inability to speak Albanian. On enquiring about seconds and finding there were only 2 pieces left in the kitchen, there was almost blood shed in the ensuing battle (a real life bun-fight!).
On the liquid side, I was also astonished by the quality of the local wine. In most cases, it was surprisingly good, especially since we’d been warned that wine is not really a big thing in Albania, and at only 200 lek (just over £1) for a huge glass, it would have been very easy to drink a lot of it if we hadn’t been up early to cycle up hills.
My previous experience of coffee in the Balkan regions has generally ranged from the dire (at best) to something undrinkable akin to mud mixed with antiseptic in Montenegro and Slovenia, so my expectations of getting a decent caffeine hit to start the day were pretty low, but what we came across was more akin to its Italian cousin, and made for an exceptional start to the day as well as at the much needed mid-morning coffee stops.
According to our guide, some people have been known to come back on the same cycling tour not so much for the cycling or the scenery, but simply the food, and I don’t blame them. I’d definitely go back for it too. Albania is my new found serendipitous culinary delight.