With nearly 500km of coastline abutting expanses of rugged mountains, centuries of Ottoman rule and a brief but impactful Italian rule, Albania – and indeed its cuisine – is a mélange of old- and new-world influences. While it would be impossible to crown any one region culinary king, a recent slow-food revolution has swept from peaceful Lezhë to frenzied Tirana, making this 80km stretch home to some of the country’s best fine dining and traditional food – all within a short drive from the capital.
Turning the corner from the chic cafes of Tirana’s trendy Blloku neighbourhood, the last thing you might expect to find is a row of grain mills whirring away behind a stack of hay bales. Carry on past the mills and the wall of corn husks and you’ll find yourself inside the cozy inner sanctum of Chef Bledar Kola’s Albanian food metamorphosis.
‘There’s a belief here that Albanian food belongs in your grandmother’s kitchen – that modern cuisine must be exotic and pretty,’ Kola explains as he sets down an undeniably pretty dish of japrak that looks nothing like the typical grape-leaf-wrapped concoction. One bite, though, summons that familiar zesty lemon-rice flavour.
Opened in February 2016, Kola’s restaurant Mullixhiu (mullixhiu.com; the name is Albanian for ‘the miller’) is backed by brothers Altin and Anton Prenga – the early pioneers of Albania’s slow-food movement. After working in Italian kitchens for many years, the brothers returned to Albania in 2010 to establish their own agriturismo, Mrizi i Zanave (mrizizanave.com/mrizi). Set on a sprawling farm in a remote village of the lush Lezhë District, 65km north of Tirana, the restaurant is credited with taking Albanian food back to basics: fresh, organic farm-to-table produce and meat that celebrates the country’s fertile terrain.
The instant success of Mrizi i Zanave struck the interest of other up-and-coming chefs like Bledar Kola and Alfred Marku, now chef and owner of Lezhë-based Rapsodia (hotelrapsodia.com), who joined the Prenga brothers in forming Albania’s Slow Food Chefs’ Alliance (fondazioneslowfood.com).
Members of the alliance commit to using locally sourced ingredients and protecting culinary heritage – such as Albania’s mishavinë cheese, which was at risk of extinction before being made a so-called ‘Ark of Taste’ product to be protected by the Slow Food Presidium. The cheese – made by only three families in the village of Lëpushë near the Montenegrin border – now makes its way to plates at Mrizi i Zanave and Mullixhiu.
For his part, Rapsodia’s Chef Marku builds his daily ‘Kilometre Zero’ menu from a combination of foraged ingredients, homemade cheese, and products from the local livestock and arable farmers’ cooperatives he has helped establish. ‘The only way to pay tribute to our culinary roots is to build a sustainable future for Albanian food,’ Chef Kola concludes.
Tirana’s suburban farms
While ‘slow food’ has become the buzzword in recent years, the seeds of Albania’s farm-to-table movement were sown on a small plot of land 10km from the centre of Tirana in 1996 – when former Minister of Agriculture Rexhep Uka first began his passion project. Using polycultural farming techniques, Uka created a natural ecosystem that allowed for the organic cultivation of more than 30 agricultural products on the 2-hectare plot.
‘The farm had become a very expensive hobby for my dad, so we opened the restaurant in 2014 to showcase the quality products he was growing,’ explains Uka’s son Flori, a trained winemaker and standout amateur chef. Flori is now the driving force behind Uka Farm (facebook.com/ukafarm), where guests can enjoy dishes of fresh, flavourful vegetables as well as locally sourced cheese, meat and quality homemade wine, as they look out over the farm.
Attention to detail certainly runs in the family. Flori goes to great lengths to source his products – riding a horse to reach the village of Klos where he collects the wild Ceruja grape for his dry white wine, and venturing to the mountainous border with Montenegro to buy fresh yellow cheese infused with sage and red pepper.
Eighteen kilometres away, on the other side of Tirana, Nari Lundër (narilunder.al) took the opposite path: from communist-era winery to farm-to-table restaurant. Set in the rolling hills of the village of Lundër, the restaurant – which boasts views of the 15th-century Petrelë Castle in the distance – first opened in 1994 as little more than a kiosk for selling wine. Now a sleek restaurant with its own goat farm, Nari Lundër recently won a grant from the Albanian government to further develop the farm for agritourism.
Though Nari Lundër’s prized French goats are mainly used for producing their famous cheese, roast goat has long been a delicacy best enjoyed in the Albanian mountains. Luckily, just a cable-car ride away from Tirana, some of the country’s best traditional mountain food can be found in Mt Dajti National Park. At the top of the cable car, Ballkoni Dajtit (ballkonidajtit.com) offers delectable roast meat and panoramic views, but one must venture further in for the full experience. At King Park Resort (facebook.com/KingParkResort), both the architecture and the cuisine will give you a taste of mountain life under Ottoman rule.
While Albania’s best fish undeniably comes from the south, a small lagoon of restaurants just off the main road from Tirana to Lezhë is our final can’t-miss dining experience along this culinary corridor. At the fish restaurants on the Patok Lagoon (facebook.com/pages/Lugina-E-Patokut) – at once reminiscent of the Florida Everglades and the Maldives’ famed overwater bungalows – you can watch as your dinner is fetched directly from the warm waters of the Adriatic. Any local will tell you that the second in the line of restaurants, owned by the Çelaj family, is the original and best. Be sure to begin your seafood feast with their cornbread bruschetta. You can thank us later.
Make it happen
There are daily flights connecting Tirana’s international airport with major hubs in Western Europe. While a taxi can get you around Tirana (including Uka Farm and Lundër) for under 2000 lekë (around €15), a rental car is needed to reach Patok and Lezhë, which aren’t on the regular bus lines. In Tirana, the recently renovated Diplomat and Xheko Imperial are centrally located and good value for money (around €75 to €90 per night), while Freddy’ Hostel is a backpacker favourite. You can also sleep off your multi-course meal in Lezhë, as both Mrizi i Zanave and Rapsodia offer reasonably priced accommodation.