René Redzepi, the famous chef of the Noma restaurant in Copenhagen is not only inspired by his Nordic roots. All his childhood summers were spent in Macedonia, among his Albanian father’s family. The best restaurant in the world according to the San Pellegrino award 2010 and 2011 might have something to do with the Albanian cooking.
Walking into the garden and feeling the warm summer night’s breeze sweep over the enormous trees he knew he was back at home. The traditional Albanian interior of the Sarajet restaurant in Tirana brought up childhood memories of visiting grandparents’ place in René Redzepi. He does run the two Michelin stars restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark but he has not lost his Balkan roots. As he often likes to say in interviews his success might be due to the fact that he “comes a little bit from the outside [from Denmark]”. Even in Noma’s menu we can find obvious Albanian influences.
One who has never tasted Albanian dishes before might want to ask Redzepi what makes it so unique and unforgettable. Albania lies on the border between East and West, therefore it combines the refined and difficult recipes with hot and surprising tastes. The favorable geographical position provides Albanian kitchens with a large range of agricultural products. Vegetables are normally fried or grilled before adding them to dishes. The most used vegetable is bean, it can be found next to meat or even in a pie. Special attention is dedicated to assuring that the fruits and vegetables maintain their natural color and taste in the process of preparation.
At the heart of Albanian cuisine
Redzepi knows more than any other chef that a kitchen without olive oil is like a ship without a sail. The chef who asks vaguely for olives in Albania will be definitely laughed at. Olives are distinguished by their size and fat content. The region of Berat is known for its big and fat free olives which are mainly used in dishes, on the other hand Vlora, Himara, Borsh and Tirana region grow small but oily olives, therefore they are only suitable for making fresh oil.
Spices situate themselves at the heart of Albanian cuisine, the sour taste of lemon, yoghurt and herbs make up its true character. The spices are chosen according to the natural taste of the vegetable in the dish. The professional use of spices allows bringing up more taste in the vegetable but not killing it with too much accent.
From heavenly sweet to intriguingly bitter
Similarly to Redzepi who exaggerates simplicity more than anything else in his work, the Albanian desserts’ charm lies in their minimalism. Fruits, milk products and dough are used to make a traditional Albanian plum cake. At the same time Albania has something even more interesting to offer to those who prefer a bitter drink to a sweet dish. The most exported and beloved alcoholic drink from Albania is raki. Raki can be made from grapes and plums, the first being produced in the warmer southern regions of the country and the last coming from northern regions like Pogdarec.
Although corn has an important place in Albanian kitchen generally it is even more widely used in the Northern parts of the country. The variety of dishes made out of it is astonishing, both salty and sweet dishes, flour and drinks are prepared from that extremely multifunctional plant. The locals’ favorite corn product is probably Boza, the cold light summer drink.
Having tasted the Albanian kitchen one will never be able to forget about it, quite contrarily, it will keep on pulling you back to the table. That might be the reason one can often see René Redzepi sitting in the Sarajet garden when enjoying a Boza on a warm summer evening.