In Search of Authenticity
Albania's "Accursed Mountains": Lovely people, lousy food (credit: Vlad Vujisic)
One of the things I love about food — apart from eating it, obviously — is its capacity for sometimes implausible historical connectivity. In Istanbul recently I ate at Limonlu Bahçe in Cihangir, part of the old European quarter of the city near the 14th-century Galata Tower. The district is currently experiencing a wave of hipster-gentrification, billing itself as Istanbul's answer to Greenwich Village, and Limonlu Bahçe is right on trend, reached by a precipitous street which passes Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence (the extraordinary installation based on his novel of the same name) and a straggle of design stores and vintage boutiques. A tiny sign directs diners to a grisly Seventies apartment block; after uncertainly crossing the lobby and descending some spooky stairs we arrived in a secret garden full of bright young things enjoying some of the city's most delicious dishes.
Alongside antakya mantısı, the triangular Turkish ravioli, here sprinkled with minced lamb, yoghurt and mint, we tried piliç zerdeçal, chicken with a sauce of saffron, cream, raisins and peanuts, reminiscent of a recipe from the Venetian ghetto where the same ingredients are stewed in a rosemary-spiked broth and stirred into chewy pasta. The connection here is clear; Cihangir was once the quarter of the Venetian merchants, and both dishes recall the meat, fruit and spice combinations found in Middle Eastern cuisine, yet it was an agreeable and somehow poignant link between the melancholy beauty of La Serenissima and the slightly disjointed optimism of a city where bareheaded young women in Topshop jeans drink beer a couple of hundred metres away from the riot police massing for the weekly burst of anarchy in Taksim Square.
The connection between Scotland and Albania is less immediately apparent, unless it is found in the fact that both countries are possessed of superlative raw ingredients, yet challenge their visitors to find anything decent to eat. In the tenth century, Scotland was known as the Kingdom of Alba, "Albania" in the chronicle of Marianus Scotus, and like Albania has ethnic roots in the Scandinavian diaspora of the early Middle Ages.
In Albania's case, Viking occupation might be discerned in the law of the Kanun, the honour code which traditionally governs the "Accursed Mountains" of the north. Kanun, whose 1,262 articles may date back to the Bronze Age but which was not written down until 1933, has experienced a revival in post-Communist Albania. Elvira Dones's recent novel Sworn Virgin illuminates a peculiarity of the Kanun code, whereby an Albanian woman whose family has lost all its male members (perhaps to the savage law of the gjakmarrja, the blood feud, which must continue until all men on both sides of a vendetta have been killed) may become an honorary man — dressing in men's clothes, using a rifle, drinking rakı and smoking — in order to preserve those clan customs which are forbidden to women. A similar custom pertained in ancient Scandinavia. Sexual difference was less a consequence of biological distinction than of the way in which an individual accessed and interacted with power: effectively, sex was dependent on status. Both systems attest a potentially flexible status for "woman" in an otherwise repressive society which is connected as much with activity as biology.