Albanian cuisine is rich in Mediterranean ingredients such as olive oil, tomatoes and pimentos. Lamb, as you would expect in a mountainous country, is excellent, as is fish from Albania’s rivers, seas and lakes. Those who like offal will welcome the chance to try dishes that changing consumer tastes have all but eliminated from northern European menus.
Fruit and vegetables in Albania are delicious. The tomatoes taste of tomato, the watermelons remind you of something other than water, and the citrus fruit is tangy and refreshing. Aubergines, courgettes, green beans and okra figure prominently in summer, with cabbages, carrots and potatoes taking over in winter. It is a frequent boast in restaurants that all the food is organic (bio), but there is no system in Albania yet for certifying organic produce.
The lake fish koran (a species of trout unique to Lake Ohrid) and carp are usually available only near the lakes where they are fished, although you can sometimes find them in Tirana, at a price. River trout, too, seldom travel far. Fresh sea fish is readily available all along the coast and in the inland cities. The varieties that appear most frequently on menus are levrek (sea bass) and kocë (sea bream), both usually farmed, barbun (red mullet) and merluc (hake). Eels (ngjalë) are caught in the lakes and coastal lagoons and are much sought after there; they rarely make it to the cities. Prawns (karkalec) are landed by Albanian fishermen, and on the coast they are likely to be fresh; elsewhere you may wish to ask if they are frozen (ie: imported).
Traditional Albanian home cooking uses vegetables, yoghurt and cheese to make meat go further. Potatoes, aubergines, courgettes, peppers and cabbage are all stuffed with minced meat. Pieces of veal are simmered with aubergine, spinach or green beans, or braised in a terracotta pot with pickling onions (mish çomlek). For turli, different vegetables – carrots, aubergines, potatoes, okra or anything else the cook has to hand – are layered with slices of tomato around a veal joint and simmered. Fergesë is made with green peppers and onions, fried together and then mixed with egg and gjizë, a dry curd cheese, before being baked. Pieces of meat or liver are sometimes added to fergesë. In tavë Elbasani, or tavë kosi, yoghurt and eggs are beaten together and poured over pieces of lamb or mutton, before the whole thing is baked in the oven.
The draught wine in provincial restaurants is normally rather young, but can be very drinkable. Albanian wine in bottles is often excellent. The main wine producing areas are around Korça and Berati and between Lezha and Shkodra. The Bardha vineyard near Tirana produces outstanding wine in small quantities, difficult to track down but on the wine lists of a few Tirana restaurants. Most Albanian vineyards use well-known grapes such as Sauvignon and Cabernet, which are easy for them to sell in quantity. A few, however, are now moving towards a more high-end product using indigenous grapes such as Shesh (red and white), Pulës or Dëbinë (white) and Kallmet (red). Some of these vineyards can arrange tours of their production facilities and offer tastings of their own wines. For those who are unable to visit the vineyards, these wines are usually on sale in the duty-free shops at Tirana Airport.
Beer is brewed commercially in several towns and cities. Korça is home to the oldest brewery in Albania; others that are widely available outside their home region include Tirana, Kaon and Puka beers. The Tirana and Korça breweries produce dark beer as well as the more widely available lager; Puka offers an unfiltered version and Kaon a Weissbier.
Of the other Albanian alcoholic drinks, raki is the most widely consumed. Despite its Turkish name, Albanian raki is not flavoured with aniseed as it is in Turkey. It is a clear spirit, usually distilled from grape juice, and drunk as a morning pick-me-up, an aperitif, a digestif, or at any other time of day. Albanians also make raki from mulberries (mani), brambles (manaferre) and practically any other soft fruit they can lay their hands on. In Slav-speaking villages raki is distilled from plums, as it is across the border in former Yugoslavia. The Berati- based vineyard Çobo makes excellent walnut raki. Another unusual raki is that made from the fruit of the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) called mare in Albanian. The best raki is homemade; commercially bottled products are widely available in shops.