Cheese from the mountains

LISTENING to the Radio 4 Food Programme about Albania, I was reminded of a visit we made to Bosnia some years ago and of the pleasure of unselfconscious hospitality and simple food produced with love.

The Albanian story was very much one of regeneration – bringing the traditional goats cheeses of the remote mountainous north to a wider market and making use of buildings that were built for different and sinister purposes (a prison for political prisoners, for example) to store fruit and other produce.

Young people who left the country to find a better life are returning as chefs and entrepreneurs. Some of them are now working to restore the best of the old (pre-Communist) traditions of farming, orchards or cheese-making – not only for their own restaurants and businesses, catering for southern Albanians and the increasing tourist trade, but also to boost the economy of the desperately poor north and try to halt the current levels of migration from Albania.

We went to Bosnia, specifically to visit Mostar, about eight years ago, driving down through Croatia, which adapted rapidly to a post-Communist world, making the most of its stunning Adriatic coast and ancient beautiful cities such as Dubrovnik.

Bosnia was very different, an insecure, damaged place where people were nervous of strangers and the scars of the conflict were still raw, both emotionally and physically (in the shattered buildings).

Mostar, which I first visited more than 40 years ago, has a painful beauty, with its iconic (restored) bridge,  its ancient alleys, mosques and grand 19th century buildings. Its location on a tumbling river is perfect, but dangerous – the city and its people were completely unprotected against firepower from the surrounding hills.

We spent a few days at an “eco-hotel” in the mountains about 10 miles out of the city. The area is a national park, rugged, rock-strewn, with eagles wheeling overhead and a few cattle and sheep herders, staying with their animals, constantly at risk from unexploded ordnance.

The hotel was a modern building with a bar and tables. The rooms were sparsely furnished but bright and light-filled. Nobody spoke English. We had virtually no local language, apart from polite basics of greetings and thank you, but the  owners’daughter had a bit of German so we managed a halting conversation about food.

We sat in the bar (it was blazing hot outside, with no tree cover) and drank good cold beer and waited. In about half an hour plates of potatoes and cheese arrived – three different cheeses, all delicate and fresh, with a handful of obviously just-picked herbs. Our lack of language prevented us doing more than smiling appreciation and eating every last bit.

The following morning there was a noise of cows and voices – we looked out to see the animals disappearing into the back of what seemed to be a house. Later in the day we realised that the house was also the village shop and dairy, and the cheese was made there with the fresh milk. The family kept apologising – presumably they expected western European visitors to want something more sophisticated. We absolutely loved it.

One morning I had a bad headache, and the owner’s sister-in-law brought me a tisane made with lavender and mint from her garden. It worked.

When we left, the sister-in-law was nowhere to be seen and we thought she was hiding from the camera, but she suddenly came running from the back garden with an armful of her lavender and mint. We were all in tears.

We have had many wonderful meals on our travels, but nothing has ever matched the simple deliciousness of that first plate of cheese and potatoes.

The challenge, for the Albanian cheese-makers as for the Bosnians, will be to find a market and make a living, but maintain that astonishing purity and quality.

Fanny Charles