Jan 9, 2012

Eating Good in Albania

My 93-year-old mother, who loves to cook, often says, “Nothing I make tastes like my mother use to make.” I agree with her but didn’t realize how much our ingredients had changed in flavor until I visited Albania. The Albanian government’s isolationist policy kept Albania a rural county where little had changed in 50 years. When I visited in 2009, with a democratic government in place, things were changing. There were a few new hotels and roads were being upgraded. After touring the capital of Tirana and the nearby pretty, hillside city of Kruja, John and I, took the bus from Tirana to Berat, less than three hours away. Berat, one of Albania’s oldest cities, was named to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2009. It is called “The White City” or “The City of 1000 Eyes” because of the tiers of white houses that line the hillside below the citadel. We toured the citadel – we were the only tourists. Located at a strategic point it has wonderful views of the area. It was first fortified in the 4th century BC.

Our guide in Tirana had told us that the best food in Berat was at the Mangalemi Hotel Restaurant. We stayed at the Castle Hotel high on the hill about the city but the Mangalemi Hotel has nice rooms. We did enjoy eating at their restaurant. I ordered one of my favorite meals, stuffed peppers. The first bite caused a flavor burst from the past. “Oh, my, this tastes just like my mother and grandmother use to make.” Valter Mio, the owner chuckled and explained, “We were organic before organic was popular. Our country was so poor we couldn’t afford to import pesticides, fertilizers, or fancy engineered seeds.” I asked him to give our compliments to the cook, who turned out to be his mother, Violeta. We were invited into the kitchen to meet her. Violeta was busy cooking but willing to share her recipes as she continued to work. While she was washing spinach for a dish she was planning to make she explained that her recipes were ones she had learned from her mother who, in turn, had learned them from her mother. My favorite was the stuffed peppers but John preferred the Yogurt Lamb and we both enjoyed Violeta’s baklava for dessert. Lamb is one of those foods that people either love or dislike. This is a great recipe that cuts through some of the distinct lamb taste that some object to.

Yogurt Lamb (serves four)
1.5 lbs of boneless lamb
4 ounces butter
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons rice
4 ounces of boiling water
32 ounces yogurt
3 eggs
2 tablespoons of flour

Cut the lamb into 1-inch pieces. Put lamb in a roasting pan with half of the quantity of butter, salt and pepper. Roast at 350 degrees for 10-15 minutes. Roasting will not be complete. Remove from the oven and add rice and boiling water. Return to the oven and roast for another 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and let it cool for 15 minutes. In a bowl mix yogurt, eggs and flour until a uniform color. Mix in the rest of the butter. Add the yogurt mixture to the roasting pan. Mix well with the pieces of meat and rice and put it back in the oven for another 15 minutes or until top is brown.