When you have so little time and when a place offers so much to see and do, it’s hard to choose. That’s where good guides come into play. Péter and Ilcsi at We Love Saranda had a fair idea of what I liked … and didn’t like to do. It’s not like I’m backward about coming forward.
I’m doing a massive injustice to the village of Mursi because we didn’t see it – we had one stop in mind. Coffee and wine at the newly opened Ulu restaurant and bar. Hugging the edge of the manmade Lake Mursi, it’s a stunning location that has, by all accounts, undergone a transformation under new ownership.
I’m partial to a relocation, to a reinvention, to a revisioning of a life. And Ulu doesn’t disappoint.
Had you asked me to guess what restauranteur Christin did in her previous life, a school principal in Switzerland would have been pretty low down my list of guesses. From Switzerland to Albania – there’s a story there, one I’d like to hear someday.
We were greeted like old friends, although the place had only been open a couple of weeks. It was immediately relaxing – not the effusive bonhomie of posh places where the smiles rarely reach the eyes, but a genuine, sincere welcome from someone who was happy we were there.
We ordered coffee and wine and were dithering about the baklava, but she insisted, on the house. It had been made for the opening – with 100 layers of filo pastry.
In Greece, they usually use 33 layers, one for each year of Christ. In Albania, 80 is common. The 100-layer version was specially made for Ulu. Even though any baklava is way too sweet for me, I had to admire the artistry.
It didn’t take much to make the connection and notice the attention to detail – everywhere.
They advertise honest and authentic dining that creates a cultural mix that combines tradition with what they term culinary courage. The smells were tantalising but we had a schedule.
Ulu means sit down in Albanian. For many years, another restaurant known for its Albanian music nights occupied the space. Kribelo closed four years ago. Christin and her partners took up residence, expanded and renovated, kept the traditional kitchen, and created a beautiful space that oozes character and looks like it’s been lived in for decades.
As we sat and sipped and chatted looking out over Lake Mursi, I had a sigh moment and realised that right then, right there, I was happy.
When you’re walking the prom in Saranda, you’ll notice many beach tours on offer that feature Ksmail. I ration my beach time. Gone are the days when I’d slather on the baby oil to bake myself to a crisp in the hope that when the skin peeled away I’d be left a golden shade of brown. I despair sometimes at my stupidity.
I wasn’t interested in the beach; I had my heart set on seeing the mussel farm.
One of my lasting food memories is a bowl of moule et frites in the medieval French town of Josselin when I counted 108 shells on my plate. More recently in Bordeaux, I had my mussels cooked with mushrooms, shallots, bacon bits and cream. But this Albanian experience at The Mussel House promised to be different.
On the edge of Lake Butrint, it, too, has a fabulous view.
The restaurant has a holding in the collective mussel farm that you can see from the deck. What you get on your plate hasn’t travelled far. No mussel in Albania travels far as it’s forbidden to export them.
I wondered why.
A study from Harvard tells me:
The Butrint lagoon is the main production center for mussels in Albania. By 1989, production from the lagoon had increased to 5,000 tons per year. It dropped dramatically in the 1990s due to an outbreak of cholera and the subsequent ban on the export of mussels by the EU. The ban has not been lifted since. Albania still cannot export mussels to the EU because these do not meet the required sanitary standards.
It’s got something to do with the water the mussels filter through their gills – the report makes for interesting reading, if mussels are your thing.
I was more interested in eating them though. And, had we had time, I’d have taken a tour and gone out on a boat to see the concrete overhangs up close and in person.
It was here, too, that I discovered the mouthwatering kaçkavall baked cheese (middle right) and the dessert, trileçe (lower right).
Trileçe is a delicious Albanian dessert composed of a light sponge cake that is soaked in a blend of three different dairies. The top of the cake is coated in creamy caramel and decorated with a feather pattern.
I am officially a fan of Albanian cuisine.