Orlando Gough recounts his trip to Dobrdol and makes two delicious bureks - one savoury and one sweet...
We are staying at Guest House Bashkimi in Dobrdol, a summer village in Albania, high up in the Accursed Mountains. As we walk through woods of beech and pine, across technicolour meadows dense with verbascum, bladder campion, blue gentian and a thousand other burgeoning wildflowers, up to dramatic limestone outcrops still partially covered in snow, it's not immediately obvious what might be accursed about these mountains.
It's tempting to think that it has something to do with the nightmarish recent history of this area. Being on the border of Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo, it was defended obsessively by the communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who was equally paranoid about invaders and defectors; we see decaying gun emplacements and military barracks hidden among the rocks. Then it was contested territory in the Balkan Wars and the Kosovo-Serbian War; our hikes are interrupted by sightings of graves and memorials plastic poppies nestling under stones. But, in fact, the name comes from an ancient legend about an accursed fairy. (Whatever!)
Dobrdol looks as though it might be in Scotland. It sits in a glorious valley, among pastures full of livestock, burns tumbling down from the ridge above. Apart from one weird swanky house which wouldn't look out of place on suburban housing estate, the only dwellings are shepherds' huts, mostly made of stone, with zinc roofs.
Guest House Bashkimi is an elaborate compound of such huts, run by Bashkim, his wife Rodina and their daughter Anisa. Bashkim used to be a shepherd; then he was a chef in the Albanian army; now he is an entrepreneur (appropriately enough, his name means banking' in Albanian). Apart from building these huts to house guests, against the advice and will of the other villagers, he spent months diverting water from a spring high up in the valley, so that he has his own water supply. There are other guest houses here now, but they're not a patch on Bashkim's. He is the King of Dobrdol. Many of the villagers hate him.
Part of the problem of staying at Guest House Bakshimi is that Bashkim never says no to a potential guest. There's a tradition up here of treating guests with extreme respect, almost with reverence. Back in the day, if anyone mistreated one of your guests you were obliged to seek vengeance. Bashkim seems to given this tradition a twist. The six of us arrive knackered after a long hike, brandishing our booking, and discover that he's given our rooms to someone else. Half of us end up in the cowshed, the other half in the larder. (The family sleeps in the kitchen, which is at least warm nights here are cold.) The cowshed is curiously charming. We know it's the cowshed because the cows treat it with easy familiarity, moseying in if we ever forget to shut the door.
Bashkim is looking for a second wife. He's afraid that Anisa will get married, and he'll not have enough help. Apparently he's had a second wife before, but it didn't work out. What does Rodina think about this? It's difficult to say. She's a delightful, cheerful woman who looks about 60 but is in fact 38. And she provides what we consider to be the miracle of Dobrdol. From the tiny kitchen, furnished with a wood-fired range (there's no electricity in the village apart what can be generated from the odd solar panel), a small table, a sink, two beds and a couple of shelves, she produces an astonishing array of food for the thirty people staying. There's dinner - more or less the same every evening of soup, tomato and cucumber salad, cornbread, roasted vegetables and burek, followed by raki and cake. Breakfast is soup, tomato and cucumber salad, cornbread No burek, but some gloriously old-school chunks of deep-fried batter (battered batter..), eaten with honey.
So, this burek.originally a Turkish dish, here a legacy of the Ottoman Empire. Pastry shortcrust, puff or filo - and a filling, usually cheese or spinach. It comes in many forms sometimes a long roll curled into a spiral, sometimes a pie, sometimes small triangles or half-moons. Rodina's hard-core version is best appreciated after knocking up a couple of cowsheds, since it consists of about 99% pastry and 1% cheese. Here are two versions, comparatively namby-pamby, one savoury and one sweet.
First, check who's sleeping in the larder. Then make one of these fillings:
2 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tbsp pine nuts
1 tbsp raisins
salt and pepper
Put the spinach into a saucepan and add a couple of tablespoonfuls of water.
Cook over a medium heat for a couple of minutes until wilted. Drain thoroughly, and chop.
Fry the garlic in the oil for a minute or two, add the pine nuts and raisins, and fry for another couple of minutes.
Mix in the spinach, and season with salt and pepper.
1 beaten egg
grated zest of an orange
2 tbsp chopped walnuts
2 tbsp raisins
3 tsp honey
Mix all the ingredients in a bowl.
Heat the oven to 180C.
Roll out 350g puff pastry on a floured board, and cut into 10cm squares. (There should be about 16.)
Put a heaped teaspoonful of the filling into the centre of each pastry square.
Fold the pastry over to make a triangular shape, and pinch the edges together.
Arrange the burek on lightly oiled baking trays. Brush the tops with beaten egg.
Bake for 25 minutes, until golden.
Words by Orlando Gough. Images by Bobby Mills (taken in Orlando's lovely Brighton kitchen). You can read more of Orlando's recipes in his Recipe Journal.