Food & drink: Olive oil, salads, fruit and free-range meat. And cigarettes with everything

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The Independent Online
It was a glorious spring day. We were sitting in the ruins of Skanderbeg's castle in Kruja, in the hills just a few miles north of Tirana, with the entire coastal plain of Albania glistening before our eyes. And just for a moment we were lulled into believing this was a glorious, untroubled country.

The food and drink certainly helped: a succulent rack of lamb, a great salad, perfect chips and a light Albanian red to wash it all down. It seems inappropriate, almost absurd, to think of Albania in terms of its cuisine, but it undeniably excels in that department.

The meat is undoctored by hormones or battery farming techniques. The vegetables are as fresh and tasty as any in the Mediterranean - the carrots and cherries on sale by the roadside outside Kavaja once kept a carload of us at least half sane through a barrage of Kalashnikov rounds on the way down to Vlora.

The oil is a bit patchier. The olive groves near Fier are, botanically speaking, every bit as fertile as their Italian counterparts, but many of them have been spoiled by reckless petroleum exploration that has flooded the fields with what might politely be described as the wrong kind of oil.

There is no single Albanian culinary tradition to speak of, rather a confluence of cooking styles from Italy, Greece and Turkey. My regular family hosts in Tirana, who are ethnic Greeks by origin, have time and again offered me what they call "classic Albanian dishes" that turn out to be stuffed vine leaves, souvlaki and the rest. Pizza is a big hit with the young trendies in Tirana (that is, those who aren't firing automatic weapon rounds out of their windows every evening), and you can find some first-rate Italian restaurants at knock-down prices.

Tasty it undeniably is. But healthy? Albanian hospitality being a phenomenon unto itself, I have never failed to overeat, and over-drink. Poverty does not make this an option for many people.

But then, no matter how short of money they are, Albanians always curb the health potential of any meal with at least 10 cigarettes. They told The Lancet they don't smoke? They were just trying to make a good impression.

If you are wondering where you might sample Albanian food in London, the answer may be simpler than you think: many of London's Italian restaurants and cafes (including some of the better-known ones) are actually run by Albanians.