Hello again! We were recently contacted by Shije (“Taste”) magazine, a very nice and elegant Albanian culinary magazine and asked to write a contribution for an upcoming article on restaurants in Valbona. It’s on the stands now and really beautiful! However, since the very kindly didn’t print the (funny) part of the article, I thought I’d give you the full text and here it is:
My Friend Admira and Me – Masters of the New Malesori Kitchen
The restaurant is warm, the wood stove throws out a beautiful red glow. Twenty-two people fill the tables, with 2 perched on the flokati-covered sofa, the table at the level of their chins, like extra children at a holiday meal. It’s an Italian & Albanian film crew who have been working round the clock and eating every rushed meal at the other end of the valley for 21 days. Tonight is a special occasion, so they’ve come to us. They lift spoons to mouth, taste, and I hear them exclaiming “Pero Buonissimo!” “Merkulli!” The conversation swells and roars a little, as it does when happy people are eating.
What’s on the menu? A thick vegetable soup, normal fare here, but with a twist – it’s thickened with two big “pehars” (spoons) of pureed white beans – also traditional but not usually combined, which makes our own Valbona version of Minestrone. Followed by 2 Salads – one is based on common ingredients – Kastravec, Qep and Djath i Bardh (cucumbers, onions and white or ‘feta’ cheese), but it’s blasted from bland with the addition of dill and balsamic vinegar. The other salad is hopelessly American – picnic food – but delicious: carrots, apples, raisins, with a majonaise-vinegar dressing. Well at least all the ingredients are traditional. The table is filled out with homemade Ngjyem (from Alfred’s Mother) (well, from her cows), white cheese (fancied up with herbs and olive oil from Kruja), Laknor – a thin and crispy treat, with just enough cornbread to stick together the carmelized onions and rich orange pumpkin we ‘skutched’ (or fried) together. Now for the Mish Qingji (pronounced ‘KIN-gee’ of course – no southern Albanian nonsense here!) roasted slowly in the oven and finished with the Saq in the Oxhak (a big iron sort of lid, heated in the embers of the kitchen’s enormous fireplace). Admira and I dance around each other. We’ve been doing this for years now, and we have a rhythm and our own private communication. Our French volunteers ask me something with their out-RAGE-ous French accents, and I turn to Admira and repeat it, in English. Without a blink, she answers me in Shqip, and I translate her answer to the French. We understand each other so well. Now on to the Maze i Zier – literally “boiled cream” but more often a super rich cheesie polenta. Ours has a secret ingredient which you will never never guess. And I’m not going to tell (Admira would kill me!). But Maze connoisseurs from all over Albania tell us that ours is The Best. At last the meal is over, with a Red Velvet Cake – this is also American – a rich chocolate cake died to a bloody red, frosted with an innocent white icing. Red Food Color & Chocolate – it’s Kuq e Zi – I suspect no one is even aware of our culinary humor, but what the heck, at least it amuses us!
Flash backwards 4 years. Alfred and a distant relation are sitting at a small table, alone. The restaurant is empty. It’s almost winter and the nights are long and dark. I have not yet met Admira, and I am alone in the kitchen. Everything is unfamiliar to me. The tools, the ingredients, the dishes. I have eaten a rich and delicious sort of cheese soup at Alfred’s mother’s house. It can’t be too hard, I think, it looks like simply cheese and butter. I find a bucket of something white in the refrigerator, and fry it up. Spooned into dishes and garnished with fried green peppers, it looks nice. I serve it to my silent victims, and retreat to the kitchen as they lift their spoons. I wait in the kitchen behind the door, ears cocked to hear the result. There’s a pause.
“She really can’t cook, can she?” says Ragip. Alfred sighs.
I have made soup out of Kos, or yoghurt. Ugh.
Cheers Admira! We’ve come a long way, baby!