Malësori for a Day: Cooking, Farming and Goofing Off, AKA: The Culture Tours
Although the obvious thing to do in Valbona is wander around, it isn’t the ONLY thing. “We villagers” can scarcely find a minute to get away, as we are so busy doing all these THINGS Which Must Be Done. Letting the Cows out, cutting the grass before it rains (with a scythe, of course), moving the bees, building haystacks, cooking absolutely every-bloody-thing from scratch, moving the bees, milking the cows, cutting wood, moving the bees, staking the Mahuna (some sort of bean for which I have NOT been able to find a word, in English), letting the cows IN and then, even once the restful winter comes, we’re so used to being busy, some of us (read: women) find it hard to sit still, still. So then there is knitting, spinning, carpet making, cooking some more food from scratch, drying the meat, bashing the dried meat with the flat-part-at-the-back-of-an-axe and cooking it on the stove, knitting some more and then there’s still always all this ‘cow management’ to oversee . . . altogether, it’s a rather fascinatin’, if exhausting, life.
Of course, no one here thinks there’s anything particular about doing any of this, even though books are being written about ‘how to live simply’ or ‘how to live self-sufficiently’ elsewhere. Simple, my foot, is what I have to say . . . but of course I also secretly relish all this imperative seasonality (if nothing else, it makes my own personal procrastination so much more productive). And ALL of this nonsense (did I mention: Spreading the plehra (or ‘shit’) on the fields) – ALL of it can be yours, for a mere 20€ for … for long enough to tire you.
Jokes aside, there’s a good chance you can find some of this going on to join in fo’ free (as we say in Brooklyn), and we warmly invite you to astound the locals by joining in. (One of my favorite moments 2 years ago was when a couple of VERY nice tourists from America gleefully seized on the wheelbarrows of some plehra-spreaders, and everyone was busy taking pictures of each other – the Albanians photographing the crazy tourists – racing to upload to facebook, just as fast as the tourists were photographing themselves, and everyone else). Oh. the picturesque manure of Valbona! But seriously: If you’re interested in experiencing any aspect of traditional life in Valbona, and you don’t happen to stumble upon it for yourself, please just ask us to organize. As mentioned in the beginning, this stuff is seasonal, so you can’t demand to build a haystack if the hay ain’t ready: But it’s seriously fun. Haystack building demands that someone walk around the growing stack, and WELL you may ask yourself: How do they get down from there?” And if you are the sort of people who have a disposable 20€ hanging around, please believe that nothing could more poignantly underline the value of traditional culture.
Some of our suggestions of what a 20€, guided traditional culture day, might might go include:
Building a Haystack:
Everyone here rolls their eyes when I suggest this, but haystacks are cool, and oh-so-Bruegel. AND fun. If you’re staying for a couple of days, you can follow a stack, from scything (a neat art to learn, and almost certain to come in handy later)(NOT), to drying, to the super-fun part of hoiking it around a post with a pitchfork which always looks (and probably is) 100 years old, and gimping around on top of the haystack . . . and then (okay, I give it away) lowering yourself by a rope. Maybe I’m just a super-dork, but isn’t that fun? Plus, and maybe more importantly, you can contribute to the maintenance of local culture – because almost everyone wants to start buying hay bales from Kosova instead.
Byrek, Byrek, hej sa morra?
The traditional song says “Byrek, byrek, how much ya gonna take?” As with so much of ‘fancy’ Northern Albanian cooking, the making of delicious byrek with less-than-paper-thin sheets of dough, filled with whatever happens to be seasonal: young nettles, unborn onions, cheese, pumpkin or cabbage – is a time consuming and painstaking process. However, it is nowhere near as annoying as making ‘Fli’ which requires hours of back-breaking work hoiking an iron lid in and out of embers while you pile up layers of cream, butter and crepe-like batter. For whatever is in season, you can bet your booties there is an army of women happy to show you how it’s done. And they’ll probably let you milk the cows and make the cheese and yogurt and harvest the cream to make it super delicious.
Kung fu doesn’t get better than the moment of satisfaction when the ax loves the wood, and descends effortlessly from your hand, and the wood parts with a shriek of “Tchak!” Then there’s the part where the ax gets hopelessly stuck in the wood, and you jump around for 10 minutes, trying to bash the wood off the end of the ax. Or the wood flies apart and hits you in the face . . . or the ax handle splinters in your hands . . . But nothing beats a big pile of neatly chopped wood. It’s some sort of atavistic satisfaction . . . . And did you ever ask yourself, where the wood comes from in order to be sitting there, all happy to be chopped? Expeditions, hurlings of chunks of wood down mountainsides . . . oh, HOURS of fun . . . .
Cows are pretty weird. Have we adapted them, or have they adapted us, to looking after them? Cows in Valbona have a pretty good life. All summer they wander around, plotting ways of getting into Rilindja to eat our flowers, our fruit trees, any bits of yummy stuff we may have left out behind the restaurant . . .. whatever. (Alfred claims they will eat the laundry off the line. I know they filch bananas from (specifically French) campers . . . . ) All winter they hang around in their cow houses, being taken out twice a day to drink lots of delicious spring water that spa-going matrons would put each others’ eyes out for. When we aren’t letting them in, or letting them out, or finding-them-so-they-don’t-get-eaten-by-wolves (which they do), or taking them to water, or bringing them back, we are milking them, and drinking their CREAM! Oh, that’s why. There’s a lot you can do with a cow. Just ask us.
Socks, Socks and More Socks
When I first came to Valbona, I came armed with . . . . knitting needles. I’d read somewhere (Durham?) that blood feuds could be settled by an exchange of gifts, including “fancy knitted socks.” So I set off with a ball of silly wool, and some equally silly little bamboo needles. And when no one else was paying attention to me, I would get this mess out, and proceed to get myself totally tangled. Alfred’s mother, Sose, took one look at me, and quickly corrected my style to include the “Balkan double cast-on” as well as the ‘around the neck’ style of yarn management (a knitting friend later told me that this is favored by those suffering from carpel tunnel syndrome). While I never did manage to master her thumb-driven, rapid style of high-speed knitting, I did manage to produce a number of credible and terrifically cabled and complicated socks. Knitting nuts will be (weirdly) happy to know that you can learn how to card and spin wool here, as well as Sose’s crazy style of machine-gun knitting.
Goofing Off: Mangala and More