Montenegro and Albania are becoming more desirable destinations to visit, mainly for travelers who “have seen it all” and want to engage with cultures that are not so mainstream. The rich cultures of the small, yet diverse Balkan countries, are unknown to many that may think size plays a role in what destinations can bring to the table. And tables in Montenegro and Albania prove to be exactly the opposite.
It is often believed Balkan cuisine is the same everywhere across the peninsula. Sure, there are variations of the same dishes that can be found in almost all of these countries, especially those with the same linguistic roots. However, each nation has its own, unique approach to food, starting from the planting process all the way to cooking and conserving the ingredients. Montenegro and Albania are no exceptions to that and the Mountain Bounty series manage to capture the best of this gastro route that literally enables you to eat your way through the diverse landscape that resembles something you’ve seen before in the Hobbit or Game of Thrones.
Traveling Through the Rural Balkans
Most of the villages in the Balkans are dying out due to the lack of opportunities for work and education. The remote, beautiful areas that seem to be living in symbiosis with nature are being opened up to travelers seeking adventurous escapes or quiet getaways through local rural tourism efforts. These efforts are helping provide job opportunities and a wider perspective for young villagers who are taking over their family farms and repurposing them into unique accommodation units for travelers – farm stays.
Farm stays are not trying to be hotels for typical travelers. Instead, the growth of rural travel and farm stays has been fueled mostly by the eco-conscious, adventure-seeking travelers and families looking to immerse in the culture. The modern traveler does not want to just check a place off the bucket list but to really engage with local culture, and farm stays provide an authentic experience that meets the objective.
Set in the tall mountain peaks, farm stays tell stories of simpler, slower times. The connection with nature provided, and still provides, a bountiful yield of healthy fresh produce which is proudly served to the guests. The higher altitude and organic way of farming ensure the natural taste is kept in every picked fruit and veggie. In Montenegro, the tradition is that the guests are there to rest and with hospitality being so important for the family to show, you won’t be explicitly asked to help in their daily tasks but if you offer to help (maybe with some insisting), they will surely take you up on it!
Things to do in Rural Montenegro and Albania
Naturally, hiking is one of the top things to do while exploring the rural areas of these two countries. Trails are not well developed but if you download Albania and Montenegro maps on the MAPS.me app, you will have much of the trail information available offline. These maps will provide you with some of the most current directions which is especially important for advanced hikes in the Prokletije massif. The diversity of rugged terrain offers hiking trails of various difficulties. It means you can hike with your grandpa, but also take on the highest points of Europe.
Foraging is exceptional in these areas as nature is abundant in berries and herbs that can be found along the way. Locals use these to make desserts, teas, organic juices, and other delicacies. Teas brewed using these herbs are not just healthy but amazingly tasty as well!
Albania in particular has been gaining a reputation among rock-climbing enthusiasts, with more than 80 developed rock climbing routes. One of the top rock climbing professionals, Adam Ondra, praised Albania as a rock climbing destination which helped solidify its reputation. Montenegro, on the other hand, has a great route in the Prokletije region where it borders Albania and Kosovo. Both countries are definitely waiting on trailblazers to come and conquer the wild beauty of their mountains.
Montenegrin Cuisine – Farm to Fork all the way
Adventure-packed vacation will require a lot of energy and here is where you get to learn about delicious local cuisines. Even though they have a lot in common, the ways of producing and treating the ingredients can differ, as well as their combinations in authentic dishes.
The Mountain Bounty project sent out an American native on the Mountain Bounty gastro route, deep into the cultures of Montenegro and Albania where she got to experience the hospitality and enjoy the delicacies produced at micro-farms.
The first video in the series takes us from Podgorica, the capital city of Montenegro, all the way up to the micro-farms in the North. Most of the farms specialize in the production of cheese, meat, fruit, or veggies. This is not commercial production and therefore, the old ways of processing the ingredients are kept alive. Some farmers still use the tools that were used decades ago, as a way of preserving their families’ legacies.
Needless to say, the setting is spectacular. Farm stays may seem to be remote from civilization (which has an appeal to a lot of travelers, especially nowadays) but it only enhanced the cooperation between the villagers. One family that produces cheese will sell it to another that produces meat, and vice-versa.
Farm to fork has been a tradition here before the word was even invented and it is practiced among the family and neighbors, but it is also a part of their unique travel offer. Older members of households educate the youth on the importance of freshly sourced organic ingredients. The Younger generation that moved to cities will often speak with nostalgia about their mom’s or grandma’s homemade food. Before having a longer discussion, and long before sitting down to eat, you will be offered rakija.
Traditionally, this local beverage can be seen everywhere. It is a fruit spirit that contains a high percentage of alcohol (usually around 40%). Locals serve it as a welcoming drink or an appetizer to their guests, before a huge feast. In Central Montenegro and some parts of the coast, rakija is mostly made from grapes and it resembles Italian grappa. In Northern Montenegro, rakija is mostly made of plums, apples, pears, or quince.
Homemade bread is almost always served at the dinner table. There are many variants but the most common bread is white bread with a delicious crust or a cornbread. Corn played huge importance throughout the history of both Montenegro and Albania.
A common misconception about Montenegrin and Albanian cuisine is that it is almost entirely based on meat. To some extent, that is true today as cevapi or other variations can be seen in most restaurants all over the Balkans and Balkan people are big meat-eaters. However, throughout their history, Montenegro and Albania were countries that often went into wars and the population was mostly dependent on agriculture. The meat was a luxury item that could have been afforded only by the elite.
That is how corn, along with nettle, fed the majority of the population. These two ingredients are served in many homemade dishes. Restaurants will rarely have dishes such as nettle soup or nettle porridge but they are commonly served in farms stays abundant with nettle in their surroundings. Another prime example is cornmeal kacamak that has a similar consistency to mashed potatoes but is far more delicious, especially when served with homemade yogurt.
Meat-based dishes are simple and slow-cooked. Local herbs are used to enhance the flavor – after all, meat is the star of the whole table. Locals will often say that meat is the best salad and they’re not kidding as there is always a variety of meat-based dishes on the table. Popular picks are meat-stuffed peppers and village-style meat.
Right after meat, pies, and other forms of pastry are my second favorite types of food here. First, the crust is made with white or buckwheat flour. Then, stuffing is prepared from leeks, potato, spinach, chard, cheese, or meat. After spreading the dough stretching across the span of the table, stuffing is added and the dough is rolled up using the tablecloth. The pie is wound up in a baking sheet. It is best to eat it with a glass of cold yogurt.
These are just a few representative examples of the Montenegrin dishes. You can find the traditional recipes on the Mountain Bounty website. If you decide to recreate a recipe at home, send us the photos!
The situation with COVID-19 is still very much a concern to all of us and making vacation plans with certainty is challenging at present. However, you can gather information about the places you have not thought of before and learn about them before stepping on the local soil.
You can use this time to recreate the humble yet tasty foods of these two Balkan countries and have a mini travel experience at home. Dream of the beautiful Balkans, their kind and welcoming people, and the comfort food that will be prepared once you come to visit.
Photos are a courtesy of Meanderbug.
About the Writer
Jovan Radnic is a digital marketing specialist and activist from Montenegro. He works for Meanderbug, a travel startup that offers an authentic travel experience in Montenegro. Jovan wrote Montenegro guides for Ryanair, local news portals, and other local and regional blogs. When he’s not working, he’s either making travel plans or watching Netflix originals.