Cheese of the month October 2018: Mishavinë from Kelmendi/Albania

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This month’s cheese comes from Albania. Because I’ve been to Tirana, for the first time, and certainly not the last. Four highly enjoyable late summer days in a city which seemed to me like Istanbul, Rome and Berlin all in one, if on a smaller scale. I liked the people, a bit unwieldy at first glance, but ready to give you a smile that seemed to come straight from the heart. Yes, of course, everybody leaves the villages for the cities, and there are many other economic, social and political problems, unsurprisingly, after almost half a century of communist dictatorship and complete isolation.

But the agrarian structures as such, the connection with the land, all that still exists. For many life is hard, and the gap is wide, but it is still possible to draw on what used to be, before socialist ideals reigned high, as shown on the paintings in Tirana’s National Gallery, and the following wave of emigration. The farmers markets are a delight, brimming with truly good produce.

Before we get to that cheese: I went to Tirana to check out an extraordinary restaurant, Bledar Kola’s Mullixhiu. After working and interning at various high-end restaurants in London and Copenhagen (where else), in February 2016 together with his brother Nikolin the 34-year-old transformed a space on the ground floor of 1970s high-rise into a northern Albanian farmhouse, complete with three grain mills – Mullixhiu is Albanian for miller.

The kitchen is small, many dishes are prepared or finished on an open fire, cutlery and napkins are stored in the wooden tables‘ drawers, for guests to grab as needed. The cuisine combines the past and the future. The bread is made from corn and old grain varieties, coarse and tasty. Grandmother’s fresh cheese is served on a ceramic plate likean open, offering hand, seasoned with pulverised olives and the most delicious olive oil I’ve encountered for a long time. A quail’s egg and sour green tomatoes are hidden in a pleated and baked pastry bag, and served with a shake made at the table from buttermilk and cultured sheep’s butter. In a wooden chest comes a small cube of flija, a very traditional pancake baked in many small layers, next to a small glass of tea made from olive tree leaves.

Seen from a culinary perspective Albania borders on Italy (Puglia is just a ferry ride away), Greece, and Turkey, but also reaches much further into Asia, and there are Muslim as well as Christian Orthodox influences. In Bledar Kola, in his skills, enthusiasm and persistence, it has found its flash point, sparkling and sizzling and gleaming in a new, bright light. I was happy, sitting in that simple, completely unpretentious farmhouse.

After the first, very soft and mild cheese I couldn’t wait for more mature stuff, of course. And there it was, Mishavinë – and I felt even more at home! The pale yellow morsels in the white porcelain bowl smelled at once of sheep and goats roaming the mountains and thick vegetable stews simmering on a wood-fired stove. They felt crumbly first, then powdery and finally creamy, taking me to the warm winter stables of those small herds and on to the tables of the few humans still (and gradually again) living in the remote north of the country, on the Montenegro border…

The expressiveness that had come with ripeness was carried by a quiet acidity, which I’m familiar with from the large family of Anatolian Tulum cheeses, matured in bags and pots. Indeed, for Mishavinë too, drained, dried and salted curd made from sheep and goats milk (occasionally cows milk is used too) is broken down and pressed tightly into wooden containers which are perforated on the bottom and sealed with a layer of clarified butter on top, and left like this for around two months. It is summer fare stored away, to survive the long and harsh winter… or, as in my case, to dream myself up to Albania’s north – admittedly helped along by the delicious wines, Shesh i Bardhë and Shesh i Zi from Arbëri.

So, if you’re now wondering where to find Mishavinë: not around here, for sure, and even in Tirana it’s rare. But you can taste it at the upcoming Heinzelcheesetalk (October 5), and at least you know about it now, providing you with a good excuse for a trip to Albania. By the way: in Albanian cheese is djathë.

Faleminderit, shihemi së shpejti, Bledar dhe Nikolin!


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