I know you’re probably hoping this posting will delve into the delights of Albanian cuisine such as lakror, a green beans, herbs , tomatoes stuffed into a pancake, or the meat and cheese dish tave dheu but that will have to wait for another time, after we visit Era or one of the other traditional Albanian restaurants (hopefully soon).
Some of the most wonderful food we’ve had so far here include the fresh produce from the many produce stands in the city and firre and buke (pastry and bread) from the many little bakeries niched into city blocks everywhere. My first experience with the little bakeries was while we were still staying at Freddy’s Hostel. There was a little bakery a block or so down which was maybe only six feet deep (the part you could see from the street, anyway. I imagine the bakery part with the ovens went back much further). No matter how early I rose, there was always a well-coiffed woman in her bakery whites arranging loaves and croissants and tending to her customers as they walked up and asked for whatever they preferred. I had sidled up to the window a couple times and tried to make sense of the little menu in the window with its corresponding (cheap) prices but I couldn’t reckon how any of the words looked at all familiar so when I finally got up the gumption to buy something from the place, I merely pointed and indicated how many I wanted: two of the chocolate croissants and two of the 8-10 inch small loaves. I think my total was about 200 Leke–$2. I hauled them back to the hostel where Carly was introduced to the wonders of chocolate croissants like I had told her of from a college visit to Paris.
In this visit, I had been living in the Eckerd College house on Gower Street in London and had spent a long weekend in Paris in a tourist hotel with my girlfriend of the time. I imagine I had visions of drinking at the Deux Magots like Hemingway and sporting around Paris with my English driving cap and girlfriend on my arm, drinking good cheap wine, carousing, romantic walks along the Seine. But this was not to be. True, I did walk the Champs Elysees (by myself) and drank some good, cheap wine (with another couple), and visited the Louvre and Arc d’Triomph but the romantic part. . . well, don’t go to Paris with a pretty girl who doesn’t like wine and appreciates Wales more than Paris. Had I not been nineteen, I would have known that. But the croissants! The one part of the trip to Paris that I remember with unparalleled joy is tramping downstairs in the little tourist hotel in the morning and amongst other grungy and backpack-wielding youngsters to have the croissants and coffee or chocolate that came with the hotel fee. The coffee was strong and robust and wonderful and the croissants were fresh and chocolately and delicious. The morning was still fresh as the coffee and pastry and the world and Paris were full of promise and warmth. Carly’s experience was less complex in the little hostel as she munched on the croissants and worked the chocolate onto her cheeks, but her smile was much the same as mine was some 25 years ago.
The hoagie-sized rolls from the bakery held a surprise: each hid a slice of some sort of meat inside and it was still warm from the oven. I still don’t know the name of this pastry but it seems a common, cheap and quick meal. We’ve since bought our bread (buke) from whatever bakery we might be passing. Sometimes it seems we get a baguette or a larger sort of French bread. Last night, on the way home from a movie, we got a big whole wheat loaf. That would have been good in a toaster, but we don’t have one right now and I don’t know if they’re at all common here. We’ve toasted bread, when necessary, but cranking up the broiler in our oven and toasting one side and then another. Seems to work well enough.
The beer, Linda, Sandy and Robin, is varied, cheap and good. Our favorite so far has been an Albanian beer called Korca (say KORsha) which we cannot get at some places because, as waiters say, sometimes Albanians do not want local beer. So perhaps we’re drinking the equivalent of Old Milwaukee Light, but it’s ubiquitous so we’re not the only ones who like it. It comes in a pils and a darker version, like Beck’s, but I like the pils better, which has a nice bite to it. There’s another local beer, Tirana, which is fine but I don’t like it as much. Of course, German and Italian beers are common. Birra Moretti is one that’s common and is cheaper than at home. We bought a plastic 1.5 liter bottle of Stela, which is bottled in Tirana but is perhaps Italian. I can’t tell by looking at the bottle. At 180 Leke, it was only 10 Leke cheaper than Carly’s 1.5 liter Fanta Exotic. Stela’s a good beer, too, with a light but tart taste a little like a St. Pauli Girl. (No, I’m not going to make a Tennessee Williams joke about Stela, so you can just forget it, Linda). Shawna has also found some decent table wine at the Italian grocery Conad. One liter box of white wine for 150 Leke. Shoot, you can’t even find BAD wine in the US for $1.50 and this wine was pretty good. I’m even having some now along with a piece of gouda just to keep up the realism of the blog. I haven’t bought any liquor so far, which seems to be rather expensive. I wish I had insisted to our landlords that they leave their liquor cabinet intact.
Water seems to be a big deal here. Though the local water system seems to be fine and safe, everyone drinks mineral water so we’re doing the same. There are two kinds—sparkling and natural and you can get local stuff or imported. We’ve been sticking mostly to Trebeshina, bottled in the Albanian mountains in Permet. Here’s what the bottle says: “The TREBESHINA water is bottled with the most advanced German Technology as it flows out from the mountains. TREBESHINA water attributes have been certified according to the EU standards.” And on the other side of the bottle: “The TREBESHINA water with the perfect mineral balance has been analyzed by the Certified German Analytik Institut Rietzler GmBH Analizat e ujit TREBESHINA/TREBESHINA water analysis” and then there’s the ppm of different minerals. It’s not about purity here, it’s about how many minerals your water has in it. Now when you order water in a café (Turkish coffee is always served with water) you can order either uje mineral or uje pas gas. Order uje pas gas if you don’t want bubbles. Uje mineral if you want sparkling. We finally figured out how to pronounce the Albanian word for water. Shawna had the word down but not the pronunciation when she tried to order it pronounced like “huge” without the “h.” Turns out (we broke down and just asked a friendly waiter) it’s pronounced rather like oowee.
I’ll write on grocery stores and other food later. I’m “pas gas” right now.