During a session at hub at the beginning of our training, one of the volunteers presenting at a panel had stayed with my host family before me. I had heard about her, and knew she was in communication with my hosts during my stay. It was fun to meet her in person, and she said to me, “you know you won the lottery in terms of living with the best cook in the valley.” I agreed heartily, and have enjoyed this aspect of my stay much to the detriment of my waistline.
Living with both the “mother” and her youngest daughter has been an ongoing lesson in Albanian culinary traditions. While the plot of land the house is on, is but a small part of larger landholdings in the mountains where the olive groves are located, it is amazing the amount of food that is produced on about an acre of land. The family grows flowers for a culinary herb company, as well as chickens, ducks and turkeys. I have watched in shame and wonder how with out benefits of any sort of technology beyond a stick and an apron to carry the seeds, the mother planted an entire field of beans that were evenly spaced and perfectly in line. As I have been here a while I can see the seedlings bursting through the soil in perfect rows of uniformly separated plants. She has planted tomatoes, cucumbers, beans and corn. The fruit trees are lemon, mandarin and orange, in addition to pears, peaches and plums. We have been eating her canned peaches the entire time I have been here, since the pears and plums had been eaten before I arrived. She also has a couple of fig trees, and I have enjoyed that jam for breakfast, incorporating it into my steamed apple concoctions. The eggs produced by her chickens are absolutely luscious, producing an almost orange colored omelette due to the deep yellow yolks. I wonder if I will be able to get such quality eggs when I move to my permanent site.
Every night we have a freshly picked lettuce salad with olive oil from the family groves. I learned that the olives from this valley make an oil that is listed on the Slow Food Ark of Taste directory for Elbasan. I can say that the oil I have been eating is a dark green, thick and fragrant liquid, unlike anything I have ever tasted. It cracks me up that this dark chartreuse viscous gold is stored in used liter soda bottles. The family also grows mint, spinach and green onions on the property, which are put together in a mixture that either goes into byrek or as a base for poached eggs. Bread is made every third day. The cow produces milk that is made into yogurt and or cheese, which is sort of a variant on feta or solid ricotta. We also enjoy pickled peppers from the garden and preserved olives from the groves in the mountains.
The only thing I can really offer them is to cook every once in a while, a sort of fusion cuisine since many of the ingredients I am used to cooking with from California and it’s many ethnic grocery stores, are simply not available. But I am finding that if one looks long enough, you can find quite a bit in smaller stores as well as the open air markets.
The large market in Elbasan is an absolute mecca for food. Barrels filled with different colored olives, bags of varying grades of paprika, cheese stores and mongers with wheels of different regional cheeses are stacked like blocks, as well as piles of seasonal vegetables meet the eye at every turn. To my utter delight, I found broccoli and red beets. I was disappointed that the greens had been taken off the latter, but I will take what I can get. I was also tickled to find one of the vegetable sellers had fresh ginger. Many people had small bundles of fresh dill and parsley. I decided to make my family some eggplant parmigiana and a roasted beet salad with walnuts and feta. I found a bottle of Balsamic Vinegar from Modena, so I felt that I had all I needed to make something amazing.
My host family had never eaten a beet before, as a clinician , I thought it appropriate to warn them their bathroom productions might be tinted pink or red, and not to worry, it was “normal.” They loved the salad, and I am curious if they will ever cook beets after I leave. I know my mixing of grated cucumbers with dill and yogurt is now a staple at supper, and my potato pancakes will also be regularly served, as will my eggy crepes with apples and figs.
When I was in Moscow in the early 90’s one of our cultural exchanges was to bring ingredients for a home nation regional dish, and all of us, about 30 Russians and 30 Western Europeans and North Americans, cooked together in a large industrial kitchen all at once. With no shared language and limited numbers of things like knives and pots, we had to navigate, negotiate, share and cooperate to cook 60 different dishes simultaneously. The Americans in our grand brash tradition loudly sang Broadway show tunes while tossing plates and utensils through the air, while the Russians stared at us in utter amazement with their backs up against the walls. It was chaotic bliss that produced one of the best potlucks I have ever attended.
I thought of that experience while I was cooking for my host family. It is fun to be exposed to different tastes and ways of preparing foods. I am finding food words are some of the only vocabulary I can seem to remember on a consistent basis. And it also is a way of sharing culture in a deep and meaningful way.
In every religious tradition, there is some sort of sacrament which involves food. Being here so close to the land, my concept of experiencing what I feel humanity's main task, that of transforming matter, is evident through the work of those I see tilling the land and bringing forth food.
The rhythms that are involved in this lifestyle involve a dance between the animals, the human and the land. Watching this dance between my host mother and her chickens is particularly mesmerizing. She has two chicken houses in the front yard. She feeds her 80 birds of varying colors, sexes and ages twice a day by rounding them into the coops with a shusshing sound and a song of rolling “rrrs.” When a chicken gets out of it’s area of the farm, she shusshes and the chicken runs back to it’s assigned territory. I have tried calling out to them in a similar manner, and the chickens do not respond. Maybe my accent confuses them (ha ha ha) but they respond to her, her movements and her voice. What I find particularly amazing is that when she comes to the coop, shusshing and rolling her “r”s with a pail of prepared feed in one hand and a stick in the other, the birds all assemble in a circle spiral around the house till almost everyone is in the structure. There are always a few stragglers, and she simply shuts them out, sort of tough love for chickens committing curfew violations.
Once I saw her gather the chickens in and one was not paying any attention to the great spiral gathering of the rest of the flock. My host mother bent over gracefully, grabbed the chicken who was obviously shocked by the experience, and tossed it over the fence, telling me it was her neighbors chicken. The fact that she has about 50 what I would call middle school chickens, meaning they are about 12 weeks old of various colors, that she would know that this particular one was not hers, mainly because it was not following directions and joining the spiral stampede to the feeding in the chicken house, was truly amazing to me. It was also a symbol of the relationship she has to the land, her animals and the workings of her farm.
One of our last assignment for a presentation is to report on our observations on the differences between town and city life. Given the fact that the presentation is only to be 7 minutes long, and the subject matter could take entire seminars to present, our group decided to illustrate one aspect of the difference through the experience of food. Each and every time I go to a market either in Bishqem or Elbasan, I am truly intrigued by the offerings. Whenever I travel, my main enjoyment is walking the aisles of the markets and just looking at what is on the shelves. Here in Albania, it seems that decades of global isolation through communism has produced a cuisine and native taste for simple food, meaning spice is not exactly in demand. The Americans are pining constantly for condiments of some sort. In the cities, there seems to be a market for such products, where in the towns, not so much. With the differing range in populations between city and towns, food is a stark representative of the transformation going on in Albania.
While salty and bland in the countryside, the food is about as local and fresh as one can imagine. For part of the project we interviewed the owner of a local restaurant in Bishqem The bar/kafe/restaurant has a brick oven grill on the porch, and is over a butcher shop and machine shop. The meal we ate was a tomato, cucumber and onion salad, with what is called “sause kosa” an Albanian variant of Tzatziki , bread, olives, peppers and grilled beef fillets which the owner cooked in front of us. When I asked the owner where he purchased his food, his spontaneous response would give Slow Foodies in the USA cause to swoon. Every question was met with him pointing in a certian direction. The meat was from his neighbors. The olives were from his groves in the mountains that he and his wife had cured last Autumn while also making their own olive oil. The peppers were from his garden, canned by his wife, and the salad and sause kosa garlic and vegetables were also grown in their garden. He did say that they bought the yogurt to make the sause at the local market, but the extra ingredients in the appetizer they put in themselves. It was a completely delicious meal enjoyed on a roof top overlooking the river and mountains.
Once a week there is a large what we would call in the States a farmers market/swap meet on an open field next to the river. One can buy eggs, vegetables and also things like seeds, coffee beans that the sellers will grind for you on the spot in these machines that look like they are from the 1890’s. My host mother brought a large bag of eggs she sold to a one of the sellers at the market, so this is what one would call “local.” The meat sold at the market is alive, literally, there are trays of chicks, ducks and turkeys that one can purchase and take home to grow and eventually eat or use as layers. Herders bring their sheep, goats and cows for purchase. In the midst of all of this, there are pop up cafes where you can enjoy a suflake, an Albanian rendition of fast food made of a pita, various yogurt based spreads, meat and french fries, and of course the beverage of choice is the thick rich coffee grounds and sugar mixture in small cups they call coffee. My own personal favorite (to watch mind you, not buy or taste) are the little old men sitting on lawn chairs under umbrellas with rows of Raki in recycled plastic soda bottles. I am sure that this clear liquid spirit could also be used in a pinch as a substitute for gas in a car or as nail polish remover.
Contrast these experiences with the cities I have experienced so far, Elbasan and Tirana, where the vegetable markets are quite large and daily, brought in from the surrounding farms, super markets open nearly 24 hours, specialty shops and restaurants serving food that is obviously imported (bananas on waffles with nutella and agave syrup for example) While the variety is a bit overwhelming, I can’t help wondering if there is a gas shortage, what would the people in the cities eat exactly? As I watch my host sister pick strawberries, lettuce, and onions from the garden for our supper, and witness the dwindling number of turkeys in the front yard that are sacrificed for our meal, eat the yogurt made from the milk from our cow and enjoy the deep yellow eggs from the chickens in the coop, it amazes me that there is a bit of shame or feelings of “less than” when it comes to the people in the villages versus the cities.
How will the Albanians navigate modernization? When the trans national highways are finished, how will this affect the towns? With the youth seeking to leave the country side at the very least and the country at the most, where will the food come from? This issue is not specific to Albania.
I was listening to an interview I conducted a couple of years ago with the producer of the documentary “The Symphony of the Soil” It was chosen by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to promote the UN 2015 year of the soil. What the producer said struck a chord in me, in response to my question as to how the film was chosen, she listed all the things the research from the UN had revealed about food security, soil quality and production. Throughout the film, scientists from around the world were showing data on how small family farms growing a variety of fruits and vegetables were actually the key to solving climate change as well as the only way to feed the world in a sustainable manner. I hope to be able to show this documentary to my students at my permanent site.
One of my current site mates who wants to be a career state department diplomat argues with me on a regular basis about how single family farming is not productive, how the US should not farm anymore, it is not a lucrative use of the land. While I listen to this intelligent educated young man articulate the talking points of Monsanto, my heart sinks. As I listen to the crickets and watch the fireflies, noticing the emerging greening of the farms as the vineyard leaves grow in size and the beans, tomatoes, corn and flowers getting taller, I wonder why he thinks all of this is a waste, inefficient, in need of industrialization? The data proves that small farming, mostly by women, has the capability to feed the world. The problem is warfare which interrupts the production of food. Now, due to man made climate change, extreme weather, flood or drought, cause other problems. Famine is rarely random, it is usually the result of human conflict. The women and men that I see here in the valley tilling the land with their hoes and sticks are actually the most powerful people on earth. They are storing carbon in the soil, preserving the top soil that takes thousands of years to build up, and affects water flow, air quality and the amount of nutrients in the food we are eating every night. How can we convey to these people that they are truly the guardians of the planet, more important than any politician or businessman?
While I am happy to go to my site, it is a city with about 60,000 people, I do have some concerns. With such a population, I will be able to enjoy consumer goods like spices and condiments not found in the small market in the country. But I will not be able to eat such fabulous eggs or have a freshly picked salad for supper anymore, unless my new host family has a garden. We shall see. It is interesting and heart breaking to witness the hyper drive to modernization. After a long day of working on the farm, my host family settles into a supper in front of the television, watching various game shows, the news or a novella. The Publicets as advertisements are called here, show happy families eating frozen meat entrees, healthy looking children gobbling chocolate breakfast cereal given to them by beautiful calm mothers in designer kitchens, and various energy drinks are promoted by Albanian rap stars. The grandson of our family, a darling four year old, prefers chocolate and ice cream, and begs his mother to the point of screaming and crying to go to the local market to purchase these things, which are also extremely cheap. The school where I had my practicum has very sweet older women selling chips, cookies and ice cream to the children during their breaks. A volunteer from the next town told me her host mother offers to pack a lunch or snack for her children to eat when they are at school, they refuse and ask for money instead to buy the snacks, again demanding to the point of yelling. What is going on?
Can the best aspects of this culture survive in the rush to development? I wonder. Entire marketing campaigns and numerous NGO’s in the US are working tirelessly to encourage people to live and eat like I am doing right now here in Bishqem with my host family. In Napa, San Franciscans pay up to $500 a night to sleep in a farm house on the weekends, with locally grown eggs and fruit for breakfast. People pay $175 to eat a farm to table meal as a fund raiser in Sonoma County, whereas I am eating this way every day here during my training. It is a crazy world and insane modern culture we live in, in many respects. As I keep telling my counter parts about upcoming Slow Food conferences and events, I am met with responses of “well, lets see” and various other reasons they can not attend, I get blank stares when I start talking about the Slow Food structure in Albania. I have decided to be quiet, as it seems I am becoming a bit of a nag. As usual, I will just go ahead and go it alone, and enjoy myself immensely wishing others could experience the lushness and joy that I do because of the efforts of this organization. And as usual I will contemplate what exactly it takes to inspire people to live full, satisfyingly delicious healthy lives in harmony with nature in lieu of plastic profiting only the multinational corporations fake lives. It truly is the question of our times