If you have to ask why one would choose to go to Albania, then you deserve to spend your holiday on the crowded shores of Greece. As for the rest of us, we get it — we hear the stirring among the rugged, dusty hills and porcelain shorelines of this other Mediterranean nation. Albania’s one-of-a-kind culinary scene and genuine slow-food network is straight from the pages of a locavore fairytale.
But sorry, you will not find menus boasting free range, local or organic. That’s because you’d be hard-pressed to find a meal anywhere in this 11,000-square-mile nation (roughly the size of Maryland) that hasn’t been grown organically on the very property where it’s being served. Wedged between northern Greece, Kosovo, Macedonia, the mountains of Montenegro and the warm waters of the Ionian and Adriatic Seas, Albania is a small but fiercely proud country with a unique history, language and cuisine, one that is heavy with Italian and Turkish influence, yet unmistakably Albanian.
For centuries, Albania has been conquered, invaded, carved up and isolated, creating a people who have learned to get by with what they have, which, fortunately, is a lot. From grapes to peppers, goats, fish and sheep, Albanian food is all about fresh ingredients and tried-and-true recipes that will leave you in awe of how good simple food can be.
Start from the capital, Tirana, and head southeast through the tree-dotted mountains, where you’ll find lots of hearty veggies, cheese and lamb. As you near the coast, heading northward from the Greek border, fish begins to take over. Squid, bream and bass are common throughout this region, as are pasta and pizza (Italy is only 50 miles away from some southwest areas).
What does a typical Albanian food experience consist of? To start: You’ll probably be sitting at a thick oak table overlooking the blue-green Ionian Sea with the strong scent of wild sage in the air. Next, your table is filled with dips, bread and the ubiquitous salad of southeast Europe — a heaping bowl filled with large chunks of fresh tomato, cucumber, salty feta and green olives. Your main course is grilled lamb, served with heaping plates of roasted eggplant and zucchini, or fresh whole fish and a healthy portion of Burek (a local savory pastry made with spinach and minced meat). Finally, it’s time for a generous shot of raki — a local grape spirit, a natural digestif and the preferred way to finish up a true Albanian feast.
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