A first Slow Food presidium in Albania is Mrizi i Zanave's restaurant Altin Prenga . The name of the restaurant immediately brings to mind the famous literary work of the great Albanian national poet of the thirties, Gjergj Fishta who was born in the same village of Altin, Fishte of Zadrima / Lezhe.
It is precisely here, that today, the passionate chef proud and proud of the millennial wisdom of his lands, acts as a "showcase" for a peasant and pastoral tradition still capable of becoming the main protagonist of an economic and cultural redemption.
It is difficult to say exactly how much the famous fellow-citizen has influenced in today's choices of young Altin. The fact is that this garrison in a small northern town is becoming a point of reference not only for the numerous customers, compatriots and not, in search of culinary delicacies, but also for a new network of local producers and restaurateurs from all over the country that are inspired by the same philosophy ...
"Cooking Albanian" according to the traditions revisited by Altin Prenga
What the great poet did with his poetry, Altin Prenga tries to do it with the flavors and tastes of this land, having as his main tool the clear awareness of his own history and traditions. "Albanian cooking" does not mean "simple cooking" - says Altin.
These dishes of the poor cuisine of the mountains, handed down over time, have all the complexity of a rural and pastoral kitchen. Cooking only what the land offers, respecting its tastes and its seasonal cycles, with the only addition of the young chef's creativity, means being able to guarantee a quality brand at very low operating costs, keeping prices accessible to most of the his countrymen and supporting the country's agro-food production.
In Turin, present last Friday in a meeting organized by Acli Torino and IPSIA, Altin Prenga was also present in collaboration with Acli Lombardia and the Albanian Culture Center. We went to talk to him and get to know him in person. Following the interview given for the Piedmontese Editorial Staff of Albania News to Elvana Gjoka.
Interview with Altin Prenga
You call yourself a pastor ... how much of the pastor and how much of the cook in your business?
Where does the passion for cooking come from?
I was born in a small town in Albania, in the 1982 under the communist regime, the year in which Italy won the world cup. I barely remember that when I was a child the shops in the village sold the products without any brand, the jam was jam, the pasta was just pasta, the square cheese and the square bread, all uniform and without choice.
I remember the complaints of my great-grandmother, then landlady, remembering with nostalgia of when our family had 160 sheep 100 goats 35 heads of cows and oxen for plowing. At the fall of communism we resumed buying sheep and goats in small flocks. The afternoon after school I always went to pasture until the 1998 Christmas, which I then celebrated in Italy.
I am proud of being a pastor and belonging to a family of pastors and farmers of the earth. They are noble jobs in my opinion. The passion for cooking and food was an Italian "conquest". I think it is essential for those who work with quality in the food sector to have strong links with the land. I consider it a great advantage to be a "Peasant shepherd cook"
Experience in Italy and the decision to return?
In Italy at the beginning I did the mechanical "bad" by day and in the evening I was a dishwasher in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Trentino. It was very interesting and maybe that's where I fell in love with cooking and good food. But my father advised me that to become a good cook I should learn the use and importance of choosing the raw material in the kitchen.
In Italy over the years in addition to the different experiences in catering, I also worked in a dairy, in a company of meats, cheeses and gastronomy, and other small experiences in wineries. During the twelve years of this Italian experience, I understood the "secret" of the Italians.
Everywhere I went in Italy I met people proud of their traditions and that every day they tried to value them making them more and more special. In Albania, on the other hand, the boys coming back from Italy threw themselves into the restaurant by inserting pizza and spaghetti in the local cuisine, while others planted the Nebiolo in Albanian lands.
Thus in no way grasping the importance of valuing what was our profound being. In this, I felt I was carrying out a "mission" in my country: bringing the best peasant tradition to the Albanian dishes.
The name "Mrizi i Zanave" in Albania recalls the work of the great Gjergj Fishta. How much has this figure affected your tuff in the past?
I am proud to have been born in this small town where the Franciscan priest was born, our great national poet. He was the president of the alphabetical committee of the Albanian language and at the time he was also awarded the Academic Award of Italy. The name of my farm shows the title of one of the most important literary works of the poet Gjergj Fishta which translated would mean "the shadow of the Fairies".
Your main course? With which dish would you feel to somehow represent the Albanian cuisine?
You can't represent a country with a dish but I can give you a dish from my country. The "peta" (piadina) crispy white Zadrima corn flour stuffed with kid's liver, nettles and leeks.
His “Mrizi i Zanave” farmhouse is now a landmark of the Slow Food Convivium in Albania, how did the idea to import the Slow Food philosophy to Fishte come about?
I discovered it in Italy and I immediately fell in love with this philosophy of life. Back home I saw the need to import it because besides being an excellent marketing line of our times, it was also an "emergency" for my country.
In Italy many realities (Slow Food and not) go in the direction of the typical and local product. State policies are aimed at enhancing the territory. In Albania, instead, today there is still a race towards the imported product considered more fashionable, of quality and even better.
We do not eat pomegranates but bananas. This is a consequence of the post-communist hunger for consumerism.
Rural areas are all abandoned. People prefer Danish cheese instead of goat cheese from their shepherds, so it becomes imperative for us a movement that overturns the trend and makes our products and recipes enjoyable and trendy.
How much and how did he influence his small business in the life of the community of his village Fishte?
I would say a lot. Within 15 km, "Mrizi i Zanave" is one of the most important businesses. The 75% of our business only draws on the internal resources of our territory. My countrymen are also my suppliers, it would be impossible for me to cover the needs of the farm with their own products. In fact, every morning there are farmers lined up in front of the entrance with cream, chicken eggs, goat milk and other products.
What is the community's reaction and their collaboration in this initiative?
At first it wasn't easy but later on they understood. Many of them have increased production and improved the quality of products, thus making more profits for their families. Now they don't have to make more trips to go and sell their things in the city.
Do you think there are other restaurants or farmhouses in Albania that could become new Slow Food presidia?
I think so but we are not many. All of us, operators in the sector, must commit ourselves to improving and perfecting the concept of agritourism, making it become more sincere and reliable for the customer.