In Search of Authenticity

Braving Albania’s deadly roads in a vain hunt for a good meal

Food
Albania's "Accursed Mountains": Lovely people, lousy food (credit: Vlad Vujisic)

One of the things I love about food — apart from eating it, obviously — is its capacity for sometimes implausible historical connectivity. In Istanbul recently I ate at Limonlu Bahçe in Cihangir, part of the old European quarter of the city near the 14th-century Galata Tower. The district is currently experiencing a wave of hipster-gentrification, billing itself as Istanbul’s answer to Greenwich Village, and Limonlu Bahçe is right on trend, reached by a precipitous street which passes Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence (the extraordinary installation based on his novel of the same name) and a straggle of design stores and vintage boutiques. A tiny sign directs diners to a grisly Seventies apartment block; after uncertainly crossing the lobby and descending some spooky stairs we arrived in a secret garden full of bright young things enjoying some of the city’s most delicious dishes.

Alongside antakya mantısı, the triangular Turkish ravioli, here sprinkled with minced lamb, yoghurt and mint, we tried piliç zerdeçal, chicken with a sauce of saffron, cream, raisins and peanuts, reminiscent of a recipe from the Venetian ghetto where the same ingredients are stewed in a rosemary-spiked broth and stirred into chewy pasta. The connection here is clear; Cihangir was once the quarter of the Venetian merchants, and both dishes recall the meat, fruit and spice combinations found in Middle Eastern cuisine, yet it was an agreeable and somehow poignant link between the melancholy beauty of La Serenissima and the slightly disjointed optimism of a city where bareheaded young women in Topshop jeans drink beer a couple of hundred metres away from the riot police massing for the weekly burst of anarchy in Taksim Square.

The connection between Scotland and Albania is less immediately apparent, unless it is found in the fact that both countries are possessed of superlative raw ingredients, yet challenge their visitors to find anything decent to eat. In the tenth century, Scotland was known as the Kingdom of Alba, “Albania” in the chronicle of Marianus Scotus, and like Albania has ethnic roots in the Scandinavian diaspora of the early Middle Ages.

In Albania’s case, Viking occupation might be discerned in the law of the Kanun, the honour code which traditionally governs the “Accursed Mountains” of the north. Kanun, whose 1,262 articles may date back to the Bronze Age but which was not written down until 1933, has experienced a revival in post-Communist Albania. Elvira Dones’s recent novel Sworn Virgin illuminates a peculiarity of the Kanun code, whereby an Albanian woman whose family has lost all its male members (perhaps to the savage law of the gjakmarrja, the blood feud, which must continue until all men on both sides of a vendetta have been killed) may become an honorary man — dressing in men’s clothes, using a rifle, drinking rakı and smoking — in order to preserve those clan customs which are forbidden to women. A similar custom pertained in ancient Scandinavia. Sexual difference was less a consequence of biological distinction than of the way in which an individual accessed and interacted with power: effectively, sex was dependent on status. Both systems attest a potentially flexible status for “woman” in an otherwise repressive society which is connected as much with activity as biology.

Linguistically, activities, rather than individuals, were gendered in Old Norse; thus a woman who practised organised piracy (and a remarkable number did) was Viking, what she did determining who she was. The gap between de jure and de facto status was contemplated by Scandinavian law as an area in which, in the case of necessity, the principle of sex could be overridden. In the wergild system, a compensation structure for men who had been murdered which recalls the gjakmarrja, an unmarried daughter could legally function as a son if there were no other direct male relatives. Female exception could thus be institutionalised, as was subsequently the case in the Scots clan system, where a woman can be granted legal “male” status if no male candidate is available to lead the clan.

Food might present a similar question of cultural ontology — of how an entity can be said to exist in itself, or, if even gender categories can slip, how it can be possible to claim one dish as “authentically” Ottoman, or Venetian, or indeed Albanian. My interest in the question was, however, less philosophical than gluttonous, as I insisted that my boyfriend drive me far into the said Accursed Mountains in pursuit of the dishes described in Sworn Virgin — fragrant qofte, fresh flatbreads and stews of beans and wild herbs. It was a breathtaking trip: the landscape Byron described in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is every bit as stunning as one could wish, but the traffic customs threaten to be more Gothic than Romantic. Basically, an Albanian road trip goes petrol station, dead dog, shrine to road death, petrol station, truck driving the wrong way down unlit highway at 120 kilometres per hour, dead dog. By the time we reached the mountains I felt as though I was travelling in my own coffin. The people could not have been friendlier or more hospitable, but the scented qofte proved as elusive as Sworn Virgins. Cucumber, sheep’s cheese and tomatoes were as repetitious as dead dogs.

Undeterred, I bullied the long-suffering boyfriend into turning south, towards Durrës on the coast, one of the great archaeological sites of Greek Illyria. I once had a tip from the travel writer Colin Thubron: the Albanian Riviera is the new Provence. Surely here we would find unspoilt white fishing villages, exquisite fresh seafood and the now-mythical flatbread? No. Albania may once have been a beautiful country but the southern plain is buried beneath a tsunami of tower blocks, trash heaps and a gay caravan of nose-to-tail lorries that lasts from the border to Tirana. When we saw something that looked like a human corpse bunched on the roadside, the boyfriend finally lost his rag, turned the car round and put his foot down all the way to Montenegro. And there we found paradise, on the island of Sveti Stefan, an enclave of white-walled stone houses and Byzantine chapels in a lapis-lazuli bay, with all the flatbread than you could shake a stick at. Uncorrupted authenticity, yours courtesy of Aman Resorts.

Everybody hates to be a tourist: maybe Albania gave me what I deserved. Within an anthropology where Albanian men turn out to be Viking virgins, maybe the pursuit of the genuine in a meatball is actually just moronic. Perhaps the lesson comes from Scotland, the original Albania of Europe, where in the reign of Malcolm III “the Scots . . . devastated the English, and the English were dispersed and died of hunger, and were compelled to eat human flesh, and to this end, to kill men, and salt and dry them.”