Self-esteem is something strong, simple and courageous. Sometimes the most important ingredients are not found on the pages of menu. Instead, uncovering them means carefully observing the eyes and hands of those who match flavors in a subtle balance between tradition and freshness.
In the village of Fishta
It is the constantly moving hands and bright eyes of Altin and Anton Prenga that welcome everyone who comes to Mrizi i Zanave (“the shadow of the fairies,” or, better, “the fairies’ refreshment”) in Fishta. The village is little more than a few houses clinging to the barren yet fascinating landscape of northwest Albania, suspended between the silvery warmth of the Adriatic and the stern, dark contours of the Albanian Alps.
In just a few years, Mrizi i Zanave, both a restaurant and a Slow Food convivium, has gradually become a reference point for those in Albania who are looking to the future without repudiating the links with a deep-rooted culinary and cultural tradition.
The Prenga brothers returned to their country after a long spell of working in Italy to become the champions of what is effectively an Albanian restaurant renaissance. “We need to mix in new ideas and influences, but preserve the products and knowledge of our land,” they tell me, as we walk through the young vines of kallmet, an ancient local grape variety, surrounding the restaurant.
“The basic idea is here, around us, to as far as the eye can see. What we serve to diners, from the water to the wild pomegranate sorbet, from the cheeses to the kid and lamb meat, comes from our land.”
In an area characterized by scarcity and emigration, Altin and Anton’s intuition and hard work have created an integrated system, made up of dozens of small-scale producers, 25 employees, a shop for local products and diners who come not only from all over Albania, but also nearby Kosovo and Montenegro.
Everything is held together by cooking that manages to be both new and old at the same time, and to restore a sense of pride and belonging. “I had it written on a t-shirt, ‘krenar qe jam fshatar,’ proud to be a peasant,” says Altin, smiling. An almost revolutionary slogan in Albania, where a link with the land is often a source of ill-concealed shame. This pride is kindled by the idea of “serving prime ministers and people from the village at the same tables,” says Anton. “Because promoting what’s local means being able to offer lower prices. And the experience of our cooking should be accessible to everyone.”
To the heart of the capital
Focusing on the local, however, does not mean becoming entrenched in localism. That’s why the Prenga brothers are among the first supporters of the Slow Food Chefs’ Alliance, which will soon be launched in Albania with the involvement of the chefs. They will undertake to use Slow Food Presidia and Ark of Taste products in their menus, a conscious way of creating connections between local and global.
The initiative will reach to the heart of the capital, Tirana. Among the chefs involved is Bledar Kola, a young star of Albania’s new restaurant culture. Having trained at the prestigious Noma in Copenhagen, just a few months ago he set out on a new adventure, having opened Bacchus in the center of the city. As he skillfully blends traditional elements, like sheets of burek pastry, with delicate salads closer to Western tastes, Bledar talks about the work of the Prenga brothers, his admiration clear.
“But here in the city, there are many different challenges,” he says as he puts lamb steaks, “the king of Albanian cuisine” in the oven. They’ll be served with a mousse of sour cream, eggs and eggplant. “I think that in the new Tirana, which is opening to the world while still wanting to remain itself, the key word is ‘equilibrium’—between tradition and novelty, between local and international, between expectations and the ability to offer change.” It is on this subtle equilibrium, by no means easy to reach but full of prospects and potential, that the future of the relationship between cuisine, identity, transformation, cultural wealth and economic sustainability rests. And not only in Albania.
Slow Food and VIS Albania (International Volunteer Service for Development) – in collaboration with the Albanian Minister for Agriculture, Rural Development and Water Management are pleased to announce the launch of the Slow Food Chefs’ Alliance in Albania, on June 19, 2015. Click here to read more!