NISERZA/Albanian Gastronomy Expedition

Fejsal Demiraj

Fejsal Demiraj wants to share Albanian culture and cuisine with the world. Through his Albanian Gastronomy Expedition project, the New York-born cook and former Noma sous chef has been sharing the treasures and secrets of Albania and modern-day Kosovo with the world. These discoveries inspired him to establish AMËZ, a product development company focused on regional Albanian ingredients and flavours from the country’s north to its south. For anyone interested in learning about Albania and its rich (food) culture and history, this is the road map for you.

Amez Cooking
Follow Fejsal

A Brief History of Albania and its Influences

Thirty years out of communist dictatorship and conquered by nearly every empire of the past, Albania is still finding its own identity. Albanian cuisine is a marriage of Mediterranean, Balkan and Ottoman culinary influences left behind by those empires and of Albania’s own traditions rooted in pastoral lifestyle which made way for complex culinary processes. These were born out of necessity but grew into a rich regional cuisine. Millions of Albanians immigrated to different parts of the world both centuries ago and in more recent times and left their mark wherever they went. There are traces of their food culture in parts of Italy and Turkey, as Albanians played a substantial role in shaping Ottoman cuisine. Albania also has a winemaking culture as old as Georgia’s. Even though it still hasn’t defined its winemaking style the same way, Albania is home to dozens of native grapes.

“The Food Culture Stemming From Our Mountains is the Most Valuable Tourism We Can Have”

As part of the diaspora, my parents and grandparents always spoke of the beauty of Tropoja, the region we come from, so the initial reason I started the Albanian Gastronomy Expedition was to discover my roots. But I’ve come to the conclusion that the food culture stemming from our mountains is the most valuable tourism we can have. I have an affinity to the mountainous regions of the north just because my family comes from there, but there is so much undiscovered potential in both north and south. There’s a different kind of raw beauty in these regions of Albania than in popular destinations in the country. In these isolated areas you’ll find the oldest food traditions which the people there managed to maintain until the present day. I love meeting the people that permanently live there. They embody the regional cuisine of Albania and work so hard to maintain these age-old traditions and values. They are invaluable to Albanian culture and their stories deserve to be told. Their knowledge in the traditional Albanian kitchen has never been documented. I hope that my projects could play a role in preserving this knowledge and in amplifying their voices, giving them and this food culture deserved appreciation. Theirs is my favourite food in the world, more than anything served in any restaurant in any city.

Valbonë, Albania – Courtesy of Fejsal Demiraj and the Albanian Gastronomy Expedition

Kosova’s Connection to Regional Albanian Cuisine

I’m not a historian, but Albanians include Kosova in our regional Albanian culture, and hence our cuisine. We can’t talk about regional Albanian cuisine – especially from the north – without mentioning Kosova. To avoid confusion, when I use Kosova or Kosovë, I am referring to Kosovo in its Albanian designation. Although the Slavic origin of the name (Kosovo) is more widely used to refer to the country, I try to use my dialect as much as possible. Kosova is one of the newest countries on earth: some parts of the world don’t even recognise it as a nation. But Kosova has a history that goes back as long as Albania and is ethnically more than 90 per cent Albanian. I call it Albania’s little sister. My family comes from a town called Tropoja in northern Albania, which is very close to Kosova. It was once called Malësia e Gjakovës (“the highlands of Gjakovë”) which is a city in Kosova that’s just across the Northern mountain range of Albania. In those days, Malësia e Gjakovës encompassed what is modern day Tropoja and Valbona, all the way down to the lake of Fierzë and east to Gjakovë and Junik. Today, only an administrative border separates these lands.

Maza e vjeter – Courtesy of Fejsal Demiraj and the Albanian Gastronomy Expedition

A Two-Week, Summer Road Trip 

It makes sense to discover regional Albanian food through a roadmap and experience raw mountain tourism along the way. In a two-week road trip, it is feasible to go from south-western Kosova into northern Albania, to southern Albanian, finally looping back to the centre of the country. There’s something special to say about every part of these regions. The intention of this journey is understanding that the value in Albanian cuisine lies in its regionality. Albania and Kosovo are nowhere near being rich in monetary value, but hold high eco-touristic potential due to what their geographies naturally carry. There’s so much nature and many sites to see along the way to truly experience this part of the world. Albanians are historically pastoralists and in these regions you can witness a continuation of the transhumance practice in pastoral life. I recommend embarking on this journey between May and September because there’s a four-day hike on the journey and the weather conditions would be more suitable for it. 

Travel Arrangements 

Take a flight to the Pristina International Airport “Adem Jashari” in Kosova, or to the new Kukës International Airport Zayed at the borders between Kosova and Albania. From there, drive to the city of Peja in the Rugovë region. Google Maps can be pretty bad in the isolated areas of Albania and Kosova, so I suggest having a guide especially on the hiking leg of the journey. Guides are easy to find through Peaks of the Balkans. You will complete your journey in the municipality of Belsh from which you can drive to Tirana (a one and a half hour drive) and fly out of Albania from the Tirana International Airport.

The city of Peja at the foothills of the Rugova Mountains – Courtesy of Fejsal Demiraj and the Albanian Gastronomy Expedition

A Perfect Start in the Rugova Mountains

Your journey starts in the Rugova Mountains in northern Albania. They border the Highlands of Nemuna (Bjeshket e Nemuna), referred to as the “Accursed Mountains” due to how wild they are. To reach Rugova, locate the city of Peja on the map. It is one of the largest cities in Kosovë and rests at the foothills of the Rugova Mountains. Road signs from there will lead you to Rugova. Albanian cuisine has two proficiencies. The first is in our knowledge in and reliance on open fire cooking using wood coals and ashes. The second is in our dairy preservation methods. Rugova has ancient dairy practices that you can very much still experience today. The people who continue to produce dairy this way are very proud of what they do. They make one of the most amazing products in Albanian cuisine called maza e vjeter. Maza is the full-fat cream you get from milk. Maza e vjeter is aged maza. In Rugove and in Albanian highland pastures, maza e vjeter is traditionally made from sheep’s milk. Sheep are milked two to three times a day – every day. The cream is left to rise until it becomes something like clotted cream. This takes two to three days depending on weather conditions. When the maza forms a thick skin, the women of the household use their hands to lift up the cream and place it into a clean wooden barrel. They lightly salt it, add another layer of maza and leave it to age. The intention in ageing it was never to create a tasty dairy product: it was strictly for survival purposes as this food is intended for winter. By means of surviving the harsh mountain conditions, these people ended up with one of the most amazing products I have ever tasted. It is still produced in the same way it always has, but doesn’t really echo, not even in Kosovë. As of late in my travels in the region of Dukagjini in Kosovë (which Rugova is part of), I have made it my mission to push this product on cooking shows and incorporate it into recipes to try giving it the value it deserves.

Ariu Guesthouse in Rekë e Allagës, Rugova mountains – Courtesy of Fejsal Demiraj and the Albanian Gastronomy Expedition

A Guesthouse Specialising in Food From the North

In the Rugova mountains, you will stay at the Ariu Guesthouse in a little village called Rekë e Allagës. This guesthouse caters to the hikers of the Peaks of the Balkans Trail and specialises in northern Albanian cuisine. The village is at about 1400 metres in altitude and the guesthouse is where the trail begins (or ends depending on where one starts). The trail can be five- to 15- days long, so if you’re an advanced hiker, I recommend coming back just for that. At the guesthouse you will meet what we call the “zonja e shtepisë”: the strong woman of the house. Fetije is super energetic and super “Rugovase”, meaning that she’s from Rugova through and through. She’s so proud of her regional cooking. She makes maza e vjeter and a badass flija: a dish that’s very much of the north.

Flija at Ariu Guesthouse – Courtesy of Fejsal Demiraj and the Albanian Gastronomy Expedition

Flija is made by layering maza into barbecued savoury crepes. Some regions like to add cornmeal to the batter, but here a simple wheat batter is used, which Fetije broils under a saç (a metal cooking lid common in regions with traces of Ottoman influence). She starts a wood fire and adds charcoal on top of the lid to encapsulate the heat inside the metal tray. She then layers the crepes with the aged sheep’s cream and builds a 30- to 40- layer flija in the shape of the sun, a symbol of pagan traditions from the region’s past. This dish is over 1000-years old and is much older than the modern Albanian language. I like to think of it as the national dish of Albanians wherever they may be. The Albanian diaspora is quite large, but regardless where one comes from in Albania or Kosova, they will always reminiscence about this dish. I wish more restaurants made it, but it’s very labour-intensive so you can only experience it in houses. The men in Albania don’t cook very often, so it’s usually the women who make flija. Fetije also makes leqenik, a delicious cornbread that is also baked under a saç. It is simple food, but it’s the ingredients that make it so special. There are many rivers and streams at these high altitudes. When the snow melts the grass and flora are at their peak. The weather is quite suitable for white corn and old varieties of it grow there. It is also easy to maintain. You can also find 500-year-old, river-powered stone mills that have been used for centuries to grind corn and wheat. It was especially used to feed cows, since sheep generally ate grass. Leqenik is made using this amazing stone-ground corn, amazing maza, a bit of salt and a bit of water from the streams, which is probably the cleanest water you’ll ever drink. 

Saç used to make flija and leqenik at Ariu Guesthouse – Courtesy of Fejsal Demiraj and the Albanian Gastronomy Expedition

A Four-Day Hike

Your four-day hike from Rekë e Allagës to the village of Valbonë in northern Albania requires easy to moderate skills. Each day will involve seven to eight hours of hiking. The first stop is in a village called Roshkodol. On the journey there, you will witness waterfalls and mountain views of Gjeravica: the highest mountain peak in Kosovë. In Roshkodol you will stay at Bujtina Lojza, the little guesthouse of your hippie, AC/DC-loving host Zeki, also referred to as “Te Zeki”. The people of the guesthouses in the highlands are so hardworking and down to earth. They live in the mountains and their lives revolve around maintaining their houses for hikers. You’re going to eat some really good cornbread at Zeki’s, along with a home-cooked meal and a little too much raki (anise-distilled spirit). 

The streams of the Rugova Mountains – Courtesy of Fejsal Demiraj and the Albanian Gastronomy Expedition

River Trout and Melted Snowcap Water

Twenty minutes from Roshkodol is Milishevc (still part of the Rugova mountains) from which you’ll head to a village called Doberdol in Albania. You’re now going from the Rugova Mountains to the Accursed Mountains and at a 2200-metre peak reaching Doberdol, one of the land borders between Albania, Montenegro and Kosovë. Although these are independent countries now, this whole area was always considered northern Albanian. From Doberdol you’re going to pass Çerem, another village in northern Albania, making your way to Valbonë, a national park with many side trails. The Valbona National Park has beautiful mountain peaks and the Gashi River, a UNESCO protected river and nature reserve that’s slowly getting discovered. Valbona is a good place to stop because it’s not too far from civilisation and there are a few guesthouses around. You will eat at a small restaurant at the entrance of Valbone called Te Jutbina or “At Jubina’s”, a common way to refer to places when they don’t have an official name.

Rugova Mountains, Albania – Courtesy of Somer Shpat

Jutbina is a young woman who started cooking simple food out of this place two years ago. She cooks amazing whole wild river trout on a barbecue. Use your fingers to eat it. Maza in northern Albania is the equivalent of olive oil in Italy in its significance to sustenance and survival. She makes a dish called maza e zier, which means “cooked maza”. She cooks it with cornmeal making a sort of polenta without adding any water. Instead, the cornmeal soaks up the whey (dairy protein) from the maza. The fat separates until it becomes almost cheesy in texture and the maza e zier caramelises in the pan. You get this amazingly wild flavour from the aged sheep’s milk. Wash your meal down with a side of raki with water from the bjeshk: another word for highlands. It is pristine, melted snowcap water from the mountains. This water is everywhere. Over time many fountains were built in remembrance of someone, so when you’re hiking, you get to fill your bottle and feel like you’re devouring nature. I love it.

Lepuche, Albania – Courtesy of Fejsal Demiraj and the Albanian Gastronomy Expedition

The Switzerland of Albania

From there, you will meet another guide who will take you to a village called Lepushe in the region of Shkodër, also in northern Albania. Being in Lepushe feels like being in Switzerland. It has the same heavenly landscape, especially when the sun sets over the hills. There are beautiful homes scattered around that are very well-kept; cows and sheep graze; and nature is lush with green. This environment is more relaxing to me than any seaside. You’re going to stay the night at a place called Bujtina Tradicionale. The owner, Petrit, was my host when I was there. I was so curious about everything that he took me and my group with him to milk his cows. After collecting some fresh milk, we went to mill some corn. Our dinner that night was barbecued lamb and peppers, with some delicious cheese. The following morning, we had an amazing breakfast which consisted of warmed cow’s milk, more local cheese, wild plum jam and pettula: fried dough made from a simple batter that ends up a little crispy and chewy. You can dip it into jams, soured milk or fresh cream. This place is the perfect reward after four days of hiking. In Shkodër you can rent a car, preferably with four-wheel drive. Otherwise, a regular car will still get you around.

Milk cows at Bujtina Tradicionale – Courtesy of Fejsal Demiraj and the Albanian Gastronomy Expedition

A Perfect Accident

Jardun is an old, lost dairy preparation method that was once prominent in the region. It only pertains in Lepushe and in some other parts of northern Albania. Jardun has to be made using fresh, high-fat milk from cows or sheep between the end of May and the end of September. That is when the fat in the milk is at its peak. Cows and sheep are milked two to three times a day depending on weather and necessity. This is usually done first thing in the morning when the sun is at its weakest. It is the most amazing, full-fat milk you can have. It is warmed up in a small pot, just below boiling point. A couple of pinches of salt are added and it is left to rest overnight. The aim is to create a quick, overnight fermentation, as is usually done with fermented soured milk. It gets thick enough to spoon and has a salty flavour. To the people that make it, it’s such a mundane thing. They’re surprised when someone is impressed by it. But a tradition with such a specific name, process and result, has helped achieve a level of sophistication that adds high value to this cuisine. As an Albanian chef I’m continuously blown away by these things. I’m inspired to shed light on these ingredients, preparation methods and dishes and to preserve them and give more people the chance to experience them. 

Shkodër, Albania – Courtesy of Fejsal Demiraj and the Albanian Gastronomy Expedition

Warm Yoghurt Salad, Native Carp Fish and Baklava Cooked in a Sour Cherry Cordial

Lepushe is in the region of Shkodër. Now you’re going to drive to the city of Shkodër, which is a bit further south. The city has an Albania-meets-Havana-meets-Merida kind of vibe. It has palm trees and people rolling high-quality cigars on the streets, because the region has a tobacco-growing tradition. It’s quite a strange vibe to have in Albania and reminds me of the time I spent with Noma in Tulum. There’s a nice pazar (market) in Shkodër with stalls for cheesemakers and local vegetable growers. My favourite restaurant in Shkodër is at Hotel Tradita Geg & Tosk. “Geg” refers to the dialect spoken in northern Albanian and Kosovë, while “Tosk” is the dialect of the southern parts of Albania. So the hotel’s name symbolises the traditions from north and south, with a little more focus on the north. The hotel has quite an authentic northern Albanian design, from the architecture to the relics and fabrics. The cooking is also traditional. It does open fire cooking over a big, open chimney and a saç. A few dishes really stick out. One of them is called ashuga which I’ve only ever seen there. It’s a warm yoghurt salad, made with good yoghurt, garlic, olive oil, chopped dill and barbecued vegetables, like zucchini, yellow squash and eggplant. It’s a very simple, super flavourful bowl that is generally eaten in the morning. There’s also tava krapit, which is as local as it gets. It is on the same level of importance as flija is in Rugovë. A tavë is this big earthenware casserole where dishes are usually cooked to share. The dish is cooked in a tavë over ashes and wood coals. 

Tava krapit at Hotel Tradita Geg & Tosk – Courtesy of the Albanian Gastronomy Expedition

The Local Fish of Shkodër

Krapi refers to local carp fish from the Shkodër lake. This lake is on the western side of Shkodër towards Montenegro. Historically, this type of carp lived in the lake. Fishermen collect these huge fish with bright yellow skin. They are stewed with tomatoes, onions and pistil (dried plum leathers common in the Balkans) in a tavë covered with a saç lid, with the edges sealed with more ashes. This is to create a smoky, convection kind of environment for the stew. When the fish is ready, they let it cool and serve it at room temperature. The gelatine from the fish and the pectin from the plums coat the fish and you end up with a deliciously tangy, sweet and smoky dish. This dish is cooked in many surrounding restaurants but is particularly amazing at Hotel Tradita Geg & Tosk. Chef Gjon Dukgilaj is one of the champions of traditional northern Albanian cuisine and takes pride in his work. I love seeing a restaurant like this busy in the summertime, although I still don’t think he gets enough recognition. He makes a delicious local version of baklava where he rolls the dough up by hand: it’s not nearly as thin as Turkish or Lebanese baklava. It’s got a homey feel and great crunch. He gave me a few pieces of it to take with me and it stayed crispy sitting in its syrup in my fridge for a whole week. I was blown away. He makes the syrup out of a cordial from wild sour cherries, adds some fresh walnuts and hazelnuts, and some thana, another type of wild cherry (cornelian cherry) that is usually juiced or used to make raki. It’s got a mind-blowing astringent flavour. Gjon cooks it into a compote for the baklava.

Wild eel, sea bass and shrimp from the Viani Lagoon at Te Diella – Courtesy of the Albanian Gastronomy Expedition

An Inspiring Female Chef Grilling Freshly Caught Wild Eel and Local Chickens

Next is the region of Lezha. You’re now driving south along the Adriatic coast. At some point, you’ll be in the peninsula of Lezh. The Viani Lagoon is there, which is home to wild eel, sea bass and shrimp. Naturally, there are a lot of seafood restaurants around, but go to Te Diella. Diella is the owner and cook. Hers is one of the most amazing stories I’ve ever heard. She’s a woman whose family was persecuted during the communist regime in Albania. My family was also prosecuted during these times but managed to flee Albania in the 60s. Imagine a woman who stuck around in these times, set up a tent on the Viani Lagoon where she’s from, and began cooking on a simple stove. She has no refrigeration, no shed. I’ve seen a photo that’s decades old of somebody holding an umbrella over her while she cooked. Her husband helps her. They fish from the lagoon, use wild local chickens and cook it all in a chimney-like stove. One of her signature dishes is a tavë with village chicken, plums, onions and walnuts. It’s a family-style dish to share, where she rolls and stretches dough by hand and layers it in the casserole with all the ingredients and barbecues it all together. I can’t find the words to express how much I respect a strong woman like her. Her perseverance led her to run a successful restaurant and become an icon of Albanian gastronomy. Te Diella became a destination for diplomats and former prime ministers from Kosova and Albania. She’s been there for 25 years. She may be known locally but has no real stardom abroad and it makes me want to shout it out loud. 

Tavë of village chicken, plums, onions and walnuts at Te Diella – Courtesy of the Albanian Gastronomy Expedition

An Authentic Market That’s Not For the Faint-Hearted

Drive through Lezha to a little village called Milot. On Sundays, Milot is home to one of the only authentic pazars in all of Albania and Kosovë. There’s a crowd buying and selling livestock, wild teas, herbs, plants and local fruits. It’s such an immersive experience that’s not for the faint-hearted. There are things you will see that might disturb you, but it’s completely honest and it’s how these people have lived and conducted their business for who knows how long. 

Kabuni in Kruja – Courtesy of Fejsal Demiraj and the Albanian Gastronomy Expedition

“One of the Most Unique Desserts I Have Encountered in My Life”

Your next stop is in Kruja, an important historic region and city. It was inhabited by ancient Illyrian tribes and during The Crusades was the capital of the Kingdom of Albania. This is where Albania’s national hero Skenderbeg recaptured the Castle of Kruja from the Ottoman forces before his death in 1468. There’s a dessert made there called kabuni which is easily one of the most unique desserts I have encountered in my life. I’ve only ever seen it in Kruja and Dibër (closer to the eastern side of central Albania and North Macedonia). It’s a rich dessert cooked with lamb stock and meat, topped with nuts and sweetened with sugar, cinnamon and other spices. Considering how expensive meat was at the time, this dish was a boast of wealth and was mainly served at weddings and special occasions.  

Wild cerruja grapes on the Uka Farm – Courtesy of Fejsal Demiraj and the Albanian Gastronomy Expedition

A Winery and Farm Working with Wild Grapes

Continue to a small village called Laknas, an agrotourism destination that’s just outside Tirana, Albania’s capital known for its wine. The Uka Farm is the first in Albania to create an elegant white wine from a wild grape called cerruja, generally used to make raki. It only makes small quantities of it. Albania has cultivated and made wine for centuries, but this is the first time that the craft is handled with a young, modern energy. The outcome is delicious. These people have really thought outside the box and their farm should be a destination in Albania.

Lake of Ohrid, Albania – Courtesy of Fejsal Demiraj and the Albanian Gastronomy Expedition

Stunning Scenery and a Local Fish Specialty  

Drive to the city of Pogradec to a village called Tushemisht on the lake of Ohrid, which borders North Macedonia. This drive overlooks the lake and has some of the most stunning views in all of Albania. Try the tavë e koranit at Taverna Koço. The word “koran” does not refer to the holy book of Islam, but to an endemic variety of brown trout from the lake of Ohrid. There are four or five different varieties of it native to this lake. In the past, it suffered from overfishing, but that has since been curbed. Between May and October, you can enjoy it cooked in clay earthenware with tomatoes and onions. It is the southern version of the tavë e krapit from Shkodër. 

Tavë e koranit at Taverna Koço – Courtesy of Fejsal Demiraj and the Albanian Gastronomy Expedition

Bean Town

Head south to the region of Korca. You’re going to pass the border of North Macedonia driving in the direction of Greece to a village called Voskopoje. It’s another historic village that’s important in Albanian culture. It was a centre for education, publishing and literature during Ottoman rule. There are exclusive dishes there. The Korca region is known for having a strong agricultural landscape and has always witnessed trade in grains and seeds. It is especially famous for its large, meaty bean variety, pllaqi: they’re some of the most amazing beans you’ll ever have and used in a dish called pllaqi ne tave and stewed with tomatoes and onions.

Shpresa Bacelli at Hotel Bacelli – Courtesy of Fejsal Demiraj and the Albanian Gastronomy Expedition

There’s a tradition of milling wheat flour in the region to make jufka and petka: Albania’s answer to pasta. They’re made in the summertime and dried for the winter. In Voskopoje, go to Hotel Bacelli, a little hotel named after the family that owns it. Shpresa Bacelli is the chef there: a real cooks’ cook. She’s a firecracker, in a good way. She’s so energetic, is such a hard worker and never gets tired of the kitchen. This powerhouse of a woman proudly cooks the region’s specialties. She loves cooking for guests and seeing people happy. She’s so playful. It’s all hugs and kisses, cooking and drinking wine in the kitchen. This is where I’ve had some of the most amazing times of my life and some of the best food in Albania.

Pllaqi ne tave at Hotel Bacelli – Courtesy of Fejsal Demiraj and the Albanian Gastronomy Expedition

She makes a dish that’s a speciality of the Korca region called lakror me 2 pet. It is two layers of dough – me 2 pet means “with two layers of dough” – filled with a tomato or onion stew. She also stuffs it with wild green plums and green onions. She lays a bottom layer of dough, adds the filling, lays the top layer and cooks it over saç on super high heat, scorching the top. In 10 minutes, you have a feast to share among four. She makes another dish that’s known in Korca called petanik me te brendshmet e qingjit, which is the same idea of rolling out a simple, thin dough of water, flour, salt and oil, and cooking it over charcoal. The result are these dried, crisp layers of dough, which are stuffed with lamb innards, kidney, sweetbreads and brain. They’re so good.

Petanik at Hotel Bacelli – Courtesy of Fejsal Demiraj and the Albanian Gastronomy Expedition

An Albanian Region Renowned For its Sophisticated Cuisine

If there ever was a sophisticated school of Albanian cuisine to consider, it would be in Përmet in the region’s very south. The way they cook there is unbelievable, and the dishes have so many intricate details. There’s extra thought and energy that goes into each dish, which adds very special flavour. Restorant Antigonea is owned by Urim and Lika Jace and is where I’ve had some of my favourite meals in Albania. These people are amazingly friendly and incredibly hardworking.

Kolloface at Restorant Antigonea – Courtesy of Fejsal Demiraj and the Albanian Gastronomy Expedition

They make a dish called kolloface, Albania’s answer to boudin noir, which is barbecued or roasted in a pan. It’s a sausage in lamb casing, stuffed with lamb liver, kidney, wild mountain oregano and some chopped onion. It’s my favourite snack. The supe me therrime is sheep’s head soup with therrime: golden, crunchy crumbs. I compare them to the little potato bits left at the bottom of fish and chips, but these are made from whole wheat flour and good quality butter or olive oil which gives the dish extra depth.

Mesnik at Restorant Antigonea – Courtesy of Fejsal Demiraj and the Albanian Gastronomy Expedition

There’s also mesnik, which is similar to the petanik in Voskopoje, but is made in-house from 25 layers of dough and layered with a sheep head’s stew. They cook the stew over charcoal for many hours. It gets thickened from the gelatine in the sheep’s head. The dish is super tasty and is rooted in Catholic tradition. It is traditionally cooked for New Year’s and a coin is placed in the centre to be found by a lucky family member. Përmet is also known as the home of Albania’s best gliko: another post-Ottoman tradition that Albanians have mastered. Whole green walnuts are picked in the summertime, soaked in calcium, cleaned and cooked in a syrup with wild geranium and preserved whole. The syrup is amazing. Delicious gliko can also be made with green wild figs. Restorant Antigonea does an incredible shendetlie, a walnut cake soaked in syrup, that’s good for sharing. 

Gliko of Përmet, Albania – Courtesy of Fejsal Demiraj and the Albanian Gastronomy Expedition

An Indigenous, 5000-Year-Old Preservation Method

Salce shakulli is a product of Përmet that’s rooted in the tradition of preserving dairy in animal skin. It is to Albania’s south what maza e vjeter is to Albania’s north. When a goat is slaughtered, the wool is removed and the skin is purified. The hindlegs and forelegs are tied and the neck skin is kept open. This bag-like skin is then filled with milk and salt. Milk continues to be added every two or three days. A branch of juniper wood is also added as it has antimicrobial properties. You end up with this 80 to 100-litre vessel of milk fermenting in animal skin that’s protecting it from the outer world. Whey drips out as it ferments. The product is somewhere between yoghurt and cheese with a super wild flavour. It’s one of the most special things I have ever tasted. You can age it for a year or two in the skin, as long as there’s good air circulation and refrigeration. It tastes stronger and better over time. This ingenious preservation method is 5000-years-old. Imagine where Albanian cuisine can go if this is elaborated on. There needs to be some sort of mainstream acceptance of it and a capacity to export it and to give it proper designation of origin. I get super passionate about the protection of this deep food heritage.

Salce shakulli of Përmet – Courtesy of Fejsal Demiraj and the Albanian Gastronomy Expedition

Two Heroes of Albanian Cuisine With Their Own Sheep and Goats

Now you’re going to loop upwards towards the Ionian Coast to the region of Vlore. It is very well known for its beach scene and hotels, but Vlore is also home to isolated areas with some amazing cooking. There’s a restaurant called Sofra e Vjeter in the village of Tragjas i Vjeter (old Tragjas). Sofo and Dhurata are another two heroes of Albanian cuisine and I try my best to promote them. They embody hard work, pastoralism and regional tradition. They run a restaurant and care for over 250 sheep and goats that they milk twice a day to make cheese and butter with. If you call them in advance they will slaughter some goats for you and cook it on a saç. They also make salce shakulli and their own version of byrek me lakra t’egra – a typical Balkan pie – using wild spinach, oregano and sorrel from around the property. The restaurant is on a mountain and the open dining room has a spectacular view over the Bay of Orikum, especially at sunset. Sofo and Dhurata don’t have the simple infrastructure that we take for granted in large cities and I am happy to go out of my way to help them in any way possible. We managed to raise funds to buy solar panels for their roof and aid them with water heating. 

Fejsal picking vegetables with Dhurata from Sofra e Vieter – Courtesy of the Albanian Gastronomy Expedition

A Guesthouse Run by Two Retired Engineers

Your last stop on this journey is in the region of Elbasan in central Albania. You’re driving north now to a little town called Belsh, known for olive oil and winemaking. There are 85 small lakes that surround Belsh. Whenever I’m there, I pay a visit to Fatmir and Liljana at their guesthouse Bujtina Dumrea Rubin. Fatmir and Liliana are retired engineers and bought the guesthouse where, every once in a while, they cook for a small number of guests. They’re incredible hosts with so much joie de vivre. They love wine. They love to cook and they love to have a good time.

Tavë with chicken, rice and saffron grown in Elbasan, Bujtina Dumrea Rubin – Courtesy of the Albanian Gastronomy Expedition

They also have a vineyard where they produce 4000 to 5000 bottles of wine each year. They make what is, hands down, the best wine from the region. Two wines are made: one is a blend of sangiovese and shesh i zi, a local grape that means “black square”. The other is a straight shesh i zi. Both wines are amazing. It’s a pleasure to work with these people. We have such a close connection that it almost feels like they’re my mother and father. Their cooking is also amazing. The first time I went there we had a tavë with chicken, rice and saffron grown in the region. It is another one of the top places I love to eat: a place where I can relax and spend time with truly amazing people. Liliana breaks out into poetry, they get tipsy with you and share some incredible stories.

Fatmir from Bujtina Dumrea Rubin – Courtesy of Fejsal Demiraj and the Albanian Gastronomy Expedition

Our guides are fact-checked and updated regularly. Read more here. 

This is where you say something cool and awesome about this website and business. Can be whatever the hell you want.

Copy link
Powered by Social Snap
%d bloggers like this: