The best advice anyone can have before a trip to Albania is: be prepared to come out of your comfort zone. The country’s isolated past means that traditional dishes still abound and it is really not difficult to find good quality authentic food just about everywhere. But if you think you don’t like offal, or don’t want meat on the bone, or don’t fancy unusual combinations, then you will need to shed your inhibitions to enjoy to the full.
Albania has the foodie’s ideal combination of rich resource and poor infrastructure, meaning food doesn’t travel far. As a result, everything is fresh and there are very real regional variations, with, as you would expect, terrific meat dishes in the mountains and great fish and seafood on the coast. Vegetables are always tasty and fresh – try zgare (grilled) and just taste those fresh herbs – and yoghurt and cheese accompany many dishes in the North. Fergese is a dish of roast peppers in yoghurt, a better mix than you can possibly imagine, and changes in style from region to region.
Meat dishes will usually come unaccompanied, so it’s necessary to order side dishes. However, don’t expect the timing to be “normal “. Two diners are not likely to receive courses at the same time, and an “appetiser” is as likely to arrive alongside the main course as a “side dish” is to arrive on its own. Portions can be on the large side, and don’t be fooled by the low price; cheap can still be big! Salads are best described as chunky, with oversize pieces of tomato, cucumber and cheese. Desserts, and jams come to that, are not overly sweet.
As Albanians are sociable people, it is common to share dishes, and you will often be handed an empty plate each, and the food placed in the middle of the table. You are expected to share, which of course is a great way to experience new foods anyway.
Throughout the trip we never saw a single vegetarian menu section, though there are several traditional dishes which are meat free. A vegetable byrek with yoghurt is a delicious snack. Vegans though would really struggle, what with the ubiquitous use of dairy foods.
And if you really can’t break out of your comfort zone (which would be a shame), then Italian food is their second choice and pasta restaurants proliferate.
For beer drinkers, Albania is not a paradise. Draught beer is rare in the provinces – the menu may say “draught”, but order it and you are likely to be given a bottle. The bottled stuff is at best average, and, when you do find a draught, it is served so cold as to kill whatever flavour exists.
The wine is variable but don’t shy off from experimenting. House reds are often acidic and unpleasant, though the whites are much better, particularly to accompany seafood. That said, the reds from the Cobo wineries around Berat are excellent and a world away from the acidic house reds. Don’t be afraid to ask for a taste of the house red first, though, as the host is usually happy to help.
Raki is everywhere, in dozens of flavours and varieties, and is drunk by just about everyone.
Coffee is generally good quality but you will struggle to find a large version such as an Americano and small espresso is the most common form. For something just a little larger, ask for a “big macchiato”.
The foodie experience in Albania is terrific; if like us you enjoy seeking out the authentic and traditional, and a little different, it is in fact something close to perfection.