Albania, young and good

A new generation of chefs returns home, opening restaurants and offering a contemporary cuisine

03-10-2019
Bledar Kola, one of the most interesting represent

Bledar Kola, one of the most interesting representatives of the new Albanian cuisine 

Most restaurants in Albania, be it on the coast or in the inland, are open all day long. You can have lunch at 4 p.m. and nobody will be surprised. In fact, there will be other guests to keep you company.

Albanian cuisine, or rather Balkan cuisine, is a cuisine based on hospitality, it requires time, it’s based on long cooking procedures in earthenware, in oil jars, under the embers. It’s Mediterranean, but with an Eastern note in every dish. There was a time when young Albanians emigrated in search of jobs abroad or to study, perhaps following their parents. Today the same chefs are returning home full of motivation, aware of the potential that their homeland can offer.

As a curious traveller, I believe that following traditions is always a sensible choice. Traditions are a starting point. Techniques and processes, improvements, avantgarde tools and the evermore demanding needs of clients then induce the change. It’s this change that usually represents the turning point (in good or in bad) of the changes. In a country like Albania, which what with stereotypes and dictatorships is starting a journey towards an overall repositioning, even in terms of cuisine, this decisive moment is right now.

The entrance to Bleri Dervishi’s new restaurant in Tirana. Open in September

The entrance to Bleri Dervishi’s new restaurant in Tirana. Open in September

During my latest visit to Albania I met two young, talented, energic and outgoing chefs who returned to their homeland: Bleri Dervishi and Bledar Kola. Two different pasts, in prestigious international kitchens, have left a mark in their careers. They have now decided to start from where it all began. Their home country.

You can taste Bleri Dervishi’s cuisine as of September, at restaurant GZona which I visited as a preview with the chef as my guide. It’s located inside the ancient walls of the Castle of Tirana, in a pedestrian area full of typical restaurants and shops. His restaurant is going to be at the top of the national scene.

Everything is directed by Bleri: starting from the walls, the choice of management in the kitchen, the interiors, the menu (which I tried in part to work out). It will be a challenge for him, not money-wise, to bring the Albanian tradition into the complex dishes designed by his eccentric and knowledgeable approach. He tells me, enthusiastically, of a fisherman he’s trying to convince to supply him crayfish, which nobody even eats in Albania; he tells me of a shepherd who raises his sheep in the middle of an inaccessible mountain, of the precise and aware research of authentic flavours from which he starts.

Bleri Dervishi during Masterchef Albania, which he won in 2015

Bleri Dervishi during Masterchef Albania, which he won in 2015

He recently competed (in an international contest) even with his grandmother with a traditional dish: meatballs. He prepared some partly using the tartàre, raw technique: a heresy, he says, as people don’t eat raw meat in Albania. But then everyone, including his grandmother, appreciated. Expectations are high for GZona’s opening, especially among the elite of Tirana.

The other emblem of "Albanian cuisine" is Bledar Kola. His Mullixhiu is not like every other Albanian restaurant. From 4 to 7 p.m. the dining room turns into a kindergarten for all the employees’ children, including his own. Located near the artificial lake of Tirana, the restaurant is completely covered in wood, it almost smells like a hut, and a statue in the shape of a mill – which in Albanian is mulli (hence the name) – is placed at the triumphing entrance.

The entrance to Mullixhiu

The entrance to Mullixhiu

The entrance to the restaurant is in fact divided between the store, where you can buy bread, ham and cheese, and a place with three stone mills which every morning produce fresh flour to make bread and pasta. 

Mullixhiu’s team is formed by the chef himself, and two partners: a miller and a cheese producer. The skill of Bledar lies in giving value to products of the highest quality, presenting them in his recipes. The skill of his partners lies in offering him exceptional raw materials. The result? Authentic, real flavours, which seem like culinary postcards ready to be purchased to get a vivid memory of the true Albanian cuisine.

Tarhana of wheat fermented in portulaca with mulberry sauce

Tarhana of wheat fermented in portulaca with mulberry sauce

Bledar, however, is also keen to point out that his cuisine is not just about Albanian traditions. It’s a journey across the Balkans, which represent the territory where traditions influenced by near and far people, including Turkish and Ottoman, developed.

Of the complete tasting menu (the price is 1800 Lek – more or less 15 euros) which was fine-tuned for me, as I’m vegetarian, I’ll always keep in my heart three extraordinary dishes: a Tarhana of wheat fermented in portulaca with mulberry sauce, especially because of the play with acidity, texture, and for the feeling of discovery that came when biting a mulberry; the Luftha pasta with blueberries, (strictly cooked in the "risotto" style, with an exceptional butter – because it is not traditional to cook pasta in water). A challenge, I’d say, to our best Italian traditions. And, finally, theKadaif pipe, sugar spaghetti shaped pastry of Ottoman heritage, made with a milk extract, placed in the earthen belly of a pipe. 

Luftha Pasta with blueberries 

Luftha Pasta with blueberries 

On top of the skill, which in this case seems to follow tradition rather than the innovative ideas of Bleri, two things strike of Bledar: the pride in his eyes when he speaks of his son and his country, and his t-shirt that says KISMET on a “no entry” sign. "Kismet" literally means destiny, but is used with an almost resigned attitude, it’s like saying "it can’t be done". So, basically, it’s an effective way of describing the motivation and dedication of Bledar.  

Kadaif pipe

Kadaif pipe

I’m sure that what with national and international events, there will be plenty of speaking about these young chefs, as well as of beautiful Albania, which thanks to such motivated people can only stand out. They will have to work on their identity and values, which is what tourists seek the most, as well as on strategies for sustainability, which is something that Bleri and Bledar are already addressing.  

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso


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