The restaurant you didn't expect, in the city you didn't expect. A weekend in Tirana, the vibrant and dynamic capital of Albania, has several surprises.
One of these is undoubtedly Mullixhiu, Bledar Kola's restaurant, a very young chef with prestigious international experience (including Noma).
Mullixhiu first opened in February 2016. The owners, along with Bledar, are the same as at Mrizi i Zanave, the farm which supplies the restaurant with a daily delivery of meat, cheese, fruit and vegetables. "In the winter we have very few products, but this allows us to work more on technique and when it comes to spring we feel rich," explains Kola. "It is such a relief when a product comes back for months, you really feel connected with the earth." In the window are three mills working five different cereals: white corn, durum wheat, oats and two types of antique grains, demonstrating the attention to detail in the supply chain. The flour is not only used in the bread and pasta served in the restaurant, but it's also sold in a box in the entrance along with juices, jams and other typical products.
The Mullixhiu tasting menus (which vary in length and are affordable at under 30 euros) are a delicate interpretation of Albanian tradition, in their plant based expression - such as the stunning beetroot, spinach, sourdough and sour cream - or the more meat centric fried potatoes with quail cooked in pottery. And yes, there is also the pasta: the dromsa, a kind of maltagliati diffused in the Balkans, the Albanian gnocchi saffron, the jufka, hard wheat pasta.
0 km, short chain supply and seasonality are all fashionable in nearby Italy. Is it the same in Albania?
People are more aware of what's in their plate and organic has become trendy. And fundamentally: we don't produce cars or sell watches, the only things we can put on the world map are our cuisine and tourism.
How would you describe Albanian cuisine to those who do not know it?
The base is Balkan, but compared to our neighbours like Macedonia or Hungary, we were lucky to have had a Mediterranean influence. Some dishes are the same as the burek, but we Albanians have a more refined palate thanks to the Italians. I recently went to San Gimignano: every time I go to Italy I love the simplicity of the kitchen, and its lightness. You eat alot of bread and pasta and I never see overweight people!
What influence did the years of dictatorship (of Enver Hoxha, until 1985, NdR) have on the Albanian cuisine?
I was born a year before the regime fell, I was very lucky not to live during the communist regime. Every dictatorship is terrible, but ours in particular has also erased history, culture, religion and traditions. In the last few years we have made many mistakes - it is difficult for those who have always lived in cage to get used to freedom - but there's also been alot of progress. And I hope we can make our cuisine more widlely known abroad.
What was your pathway into the restaurant business?
I was always a very independent kid. When I was 15 I went to London alone. I did six months as dishwasher, the pots were bigger than me. At that time the brigades were really a jungle: I could have taken a wrong turn, but I went to a cooking school. After a few years I decided to return to Tirana. Everyone told me that I was crazy, but I wanted to give something to my country, to stay abroad seemed like a betrayal.
But then he went abroad to work at Noma in Copenhagen ...
There I decided to do three stages in three different periods - 2010, 2011, 2012 - in order to follow the evolution. It really changed my life. When I returned to Tirana, after working at many starred restaurants in London, I felt like a fish out of water. Where was the foie gras, Camembert, and French wines? Noma taught me to cook without those products. I also spent a period at the Fäviken, from which I was inspired to build Mullixhiu (low lights, dark wood, natural materials and a strong Nordic atmosphere, NdR).
A year after opening the restaurant, how satisfied are you with how things are going?
Very. We want to keep our tasting menus inexpensive in order to attract all sorts of customers: good food should not be just a luxury for the rich. And we hope others will imitate us. There are still many Albanian ingredients and techniques that need to be rediscovered: until a few years ago Mishavine cheese was produced by just three families, now it has been saved by Slow Food.
It's part of a beautiful project, Buka 'N Strajc, in schools ... In Albania we don't have canteens, so rich children can bring good things to eat, while poor children only buy junk food, and childhood obesity has become a problem. I bought a food truck to cook along with them, showing they how they can make healthy home-made meals.