“You want coffee now?” Our waiter could not conceal his astonishment. “With breakfast?”
Too well-trained to roll his eyes, the waiter (who also served as the desk clerk of our hotel in Durrës, Albania) murmured, "Right away, madam" in a way that spoke volumes. He disappeared into the back, ostensibly to fetch the coffee but actually to regale his co-workers with this latest proof of foreigners' barbaric ways.
I’m always tripping over this stuff in the Balkans. After months on the road exploring culture through cuisine (our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour just hit the 90 day mark!) I’ve learned that around here you drink liquid yogurt or a large glass of warm milk at breakfast and take your coffee at dawn or much later in the morning, usually in a café. And not just any café. It turns out the vast majority are all-male preserves where weighty subjects — business contracts, politics, car repairs, gossip about sports figures — are discussed. Could I go into one and get served? Yes, and I’ve done it, accidentally; everyone was very polite. But gatecrashing guys’ hangouts isn’t as amusing as it may sound. Occasionally I run across an all-women’s café, but that’s awkward for Rich. We sometimes pass up a dozen places before we find one where we’ll both feel comfortable.
In rural villages, the question doesn’t arise because women only drink coffee at home. Country families still tend to follow the old ways, defined for 500 years by the Kanun, which held that women were property and could not sign contracts, wear a watch, smoke, or vote in elections, to name but a few. (Don’t get me started on how I feel about this.) I'll give Northern Albania credit for coming up with one unusual alternative: a woman could become a “sworn virgin” who assumed the dress, demeanor, and legal rights of a man, a lifetime commitment that included a vow of celibacy. In the past, some women did this to acquire the legal right to serve as the head of a family or business; for the handful following this path now, it tends to be more a lifestyle choice.
Luckily, modern Albanian women have a far wider range of rights and opportunities than their foremothers. Lots of them are earning good money in agrotourism, providing meals and/or overnight stays in rural homes so visitors from more industrialized settings can appreciate the full “farm-to-fork” experience. Which is how, on a recent rainy afternoon, I found myself hanging around an outdoor kitchen with Emanuela, a full-time professional chef who spends her evenings preparing dinner for a dozen people at her brother Florian’s guesthouse. [See recipes here]
Florian told me his guesthouse was the first ever to open in Albania. It's just a few miles outside of Shkodër, one of the most ancient cities in the Balkans. Few of the city's glorious old buildings remain, and most visitors zip through it on the way to the Albanian Alps, also known as the Accursed Mountains, which offer the kind of vigorous hiking over treacherous terrain that Rich and I prefer to avoid at all costs. Instead, we chose to idle away a few days in the old city visiting museums, markets, parks, and of course, coffee houses. We often saw women from the countryside wearing traditional ethnic dress, men driving horse-drawn carts laden with charcoal or hay, and one robust figure, observed lingering over a beer every morning at a small café, whom we were half convinced was a sworn virgin.
Rich and I were comfortably ensconced in a downtown hotel dating back to 1694, enjoying meals served in the old courtyard by a staff willing to provide coffee with breakfast and without attitude. However, being selflessly devoted to doing comfort food research on behalf of our readers, we pried ourselves out of this cozy spot for one night so that we could sleep in a rural guest house rumored to have a particularly high standard of old-fashioned country cooking.
Our hostess, Zina, turned out to be a woman about my own age who spoke no English; luckily her daughter-in-law, Diana, was on hand to do the necessary translating. The first thing they asked was whether we wanted any coffee. When I said yes, Zina quickly produced tiny cups of espresso and glasses of raki, homemade fruit brandy with throat searing flavor and an alcohol content somewhere to the north of zowie!
I took a cautions sip. When I had recovered my powers of speech, I said to Diana, “I can never tell when to drink raki. Some people say before a meal to prepare the stomach. Others say after to improve digestion. Last night someone suggested it with our meal. I’ve also heard it’s always drunk with coffee.”
“I have raki every morning with my coffee,” said Diana. “It helps me start my day.”
“Where do you work?”
“I teach English in a school.”
I wondered if any of my old schoolteachers ever did the same; it would explain a lot.
The house was spacious and impeccably clean, every window offering views of mountains, cornfields, and the vast chestnut forest Pylli I Gështenjave. Our bedroom held old-fashioned wooden furniture including a wardrobe big enough to contain all of Narnia. It was wasted on us, as this was one of our luggage-free trips, but we appreciated the thought. The online description had mentioned a private bathroom, but as we’d discovered before, “private” can be used in the sense that the bathroom is not open to the general public rather than actually being en suite. Fortunately, we were the only guests and we had not only the bathroom but the entire upper floor to ourselves.
Downstairs, Zina welcomed us into her kitchen, and I am pleased to report that her husband Mirash pitched in with the cooking and spent a lot of time taking care of Diana’s four month old daughter. The food was prepared on a wood-burning stove, and involved such intensive labor, so much variety, and such massive quantities, that we gorged ourselves to bursting and still felt horribly guilty that we weren’t able to consume more than a small fraction of what was on the table. [See recipes here]
“I’m never going to eat again,” Rich muttered, as we staggered upstairs after dinner.
But Zina had other ideas. The next morning, after Rich and I had ambled around making friends with the family’s animals, she presenting us with an enormous breakfast of pancakes with homemade fruit compote and honey, fried eggs, slabs of smoky cheese, and large glasses of hot, fresh milk with little pools of butterfat floating on the surface.
“It’s like drinking it directly from Lara’s udder,” I said with a shudder. “I really can’t.”
To my astonishment and admiration, Rich manfully downed his glass. “My parents gave me warm milk as a kid,” he said. “I’m not crazy about it, but I can drink the stuff.”
And that’s the beauty of travel. You learn things about each other that somehow never came up, even in 34 years of conversation.
Rich may credit his upbringing, but I know the real reason he was able to belly up to that milk so cheerfully: before breakfast, he’d downed a glass of raki with his early morning coffee. “I can never figure out when to drink what,” he said. “But I know why I’m drinking it: because it’s there.” And I suppose that’s as good a policy as any.
Is your mouth watering? Want to try making these dishes at home?
See Emanuela's and Zina's Albanian Farmhouse recipes here.
Rich and I bid a fond farewell to Albania and traveled by bus to Bosnia & and Herzegovina, where we are looking forward to more adventures and great comfort food. We're also hoping for better wifi, as connection has been a bit iffy in recent weeks, which is why I haven't posted much on Facebook and sometimes don't reply to comments right away.
Today marks our 90th day on the road!
Take a stroll back through some of the highlights.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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