Saturday, 22 May 2010
Restaurant - Alba
Location - Kilburn
By Boeing : 2693 miles
By Boris Bike : 7.3 miles
Sated and surprised I left Afghanistan and travelled west to Albania, a land buttressed by the Balkans but bestrode by Greece. Rather than clamber through mountain passes my route took me via the Bakerloo line to Kilburn. Once again my destination had hardly earned a reputation as a tourist trap. In fact I’ve never met anyone who has been there be it for business, break or bereavement.
Despite a glorious climate and long expanses of unspoilt beaches Albania is a country that has never planned a second runway let alone a fifth. Sadly this seeming lack of appeal was shared by Alba, the small Albanian café and restaurant where I dined, alone, literally alone, on a Friday evening. For restaurants, i surmised, at least one of these three key elements must be enticing: location, cuisine and atmosphere. The rest are left to wrestle with the rents.
The owner, a portly, gregarious Kosovan, didn’t seem too downcast at the lack of custom. It appeared to be a typical start to a lonely, loss-making weekend. Glancing down the menu I struggled to find any Albanian dishes. There was page after page of pasta and Panettone, elegantly scribed in Italian, but not one authentic dish. Then I found some, on the final page, hidden below the aperitifs. The chef seemed bemused when I ordered them and spent several minutes rustling around in cupboards trying to find the ingredients. While he did this I looked out of the window and saw a pink cardboard sign affixed to a pane offering ‘English breakfasts, served all day.’ It was clearly a case of entice the English or face eviction: diversify or default.
A brief stroll in the area revealed that this restaurant was not an exclave but part of a bustling enclave in this western district of London. Albanians snipped away in a local barbers while their countrymen sold packets of pastilles in a newsagent. I believe I was even given a Standard by a swarthy Albanian gent at the exit of the tube station. It was these men, missing the smells and sounds of home that provided the custom. Or i expect that was the idea, maybe they’d been in London long enough to sample the alternatives, however disloyal that may appear.
Albania, like Afghanistan, is a country that has been claimed by one empire after another from the times of antiquity. Greece, Rome, Byzantium and Ottoman Turkey all conquered this abundant land, took what they wanted and left. But unlike Afghanistan, rather than enhance their sense of nation this serial subjugation has left Albania dull and diluted. The owner even admitted as much, ‘The Ottomans left us so many words we forgot about our own. The young just speak English.’ With a reported 10,000 people dying in vendetta wars in the last twenty years the phrase ‘let bygones be bygones’ certainly appears to have fallen out of common usage.
It is no accident that the post war world has virtually forgotten Albania. Its communist leader, Enver Hoxha, was not one for global diplomacy. In fact he detested any mobility, be it spatial or social, prohibiting air travel and banning private transport in his forty year reign. For the English it conjures an image of country close to but not as cultural as Greece, a bit like how we perceive the Welsh. It is in the right vicinity, we think, but is there any reason to visit in particular? As students will testify the reason, in Aberwswth or Albania, can only boil down to one thing: because it is cheap. And therein lies the appeal. Unvisited can just as easily be explained as unspoilt; basic, in less cynical eyes, is bohemian.
In Albania it is not pragmatic to be patriotic. Today’s enemy could be tomorrow’s ruler. This is a country that faced the ignominy of being invaded by Mussolini. After several years this fascist megalomaniac was supplanted by that icon of justice and egalitarianism, Adolf Hitler. Even the most inscrutable poker face would fail to reveal the disappointment of such a hand. But this ‘borrowed’ nationhood has had an odd, unpredictable effect. The owner and his staff spoke of Greater Albania, an entity that traverses the lines and borders of maps and encompasses what we, in our starched collar conformity, naively assume are separate cultures and countries. For a Kossovan to own an Albanian restaurant cannot be compared to Michel Le Roux managing a Little Chef.
In this context my expectations of the meal were not high. But undeterred I asked for the national dish, lamb baked in yoghurt. I was met with a frown and told “ It takes too long to cook.” I settled for a beef grill. Ten minutes a later a bulbous burger was dished up accompanied by cabbage and pitta. It was as inspiring as a Alan Titchmarsh novel, but without the sauce. The blandness of the meal was saved by a yoghurt and cucumber soup, referred to as a liquid salad, that was poured over the meat. This leant it a blessed semblance of flavour.
As I rose to leave I noticed framed pictures of shepherds roaming Albanian meadows. They seemed happy.
Thursday, 20 May 2010
Restaurant - Ariana
Location - Mile End
It was fitting that this journey would begin in Mile End. It is a district of contrasts, where modernity is a visitor unwelcome and unheeded. Much like Afghanistan, that conundrum of a country, whose history has become its legacy. Afghans are a fiercely proud race whose spirit has been bowed but not broken by a recent past of rack, ruin and Rumfeldt.
Heading East, not on the silk route but the screeching rails of the district line, I emerged into the dying embers of day to be greeted by socialist activists requesting my signature on a petition denouncing the coalition government as a democratic sham. Free thought, I mused, not readily identified as an Afghani trait. But a call to arms, yes, that certainly fits the bill.
Mile End has yet to embrace the gastro pub. Its inns are spartan and foreboding. They don’t stock bottled beer from Japanese microbreweries or play synthetic jazz in the washrooms. Lives here are simply led, unencumbered by ambition or pretension. As I opened the door of the Ariana restaurant, I wondered where the similarities would end.
The Afghans are a noble people who have mastered bravery under the harsh tutelage of history. I know this as once, in the midst of a surreal afternoon, I lunched with their national cricket captain. The image of him recalling and reliving the euphoria of his teams’ first ever victory was truly humbling, and something I will never forget. Afghans are passionately patriotic, often to the brink of hysteria, and have a deep, mystical connection with their tribe and terrain. They desperately want the world to see the land they love, not the desolate, war-ravaged wasteland shown on television.
The owner cum chef, I hope the first of many an obliging host, was no different. He was, for one night only, a cultural attaché. He beseeched me to marvel at the intricate mosaic tiling of his decorative kiln; the oil painting of afghan horsemen riding into the sunset; carved birds of prey swooping down from ceiling brackets. There was no denying it was an evocative scene that suspended the imagination enough to be far more than a mere pastiche. On the authenticity scale, this was closer to Khyber than kitsch.
We dined cross-legged on a raised wooden platform covered with rugs and scattered with richly embroidered cushions. This is how guests are received in an Afghan household, each article and adornment reflecting the virtue and valour of the host. Above us were hung ancient stringed instruments that would, I can only imagine, provide an eery refrain to haunting lament. Slaves to tradition we ordered some mint tea. It was served in ornate porcelain cups festooned with ossack style dancers.
I’m not sure what I expected from the menu, but in any case I was surprised by the staples and specialities on offer. I had assumed it would be typical of the cuisine of Greater Persia, with simple grilled meats on long, entwining skewers. These featured of course but so did a cavalcade of curious native dishes, bursting with fruits and flavours. It was rich with seasonal vegetables and abundant vitamins. Afghanistan, it seems, is more fertile and alluvial than one would imagine. The chef explained that although vegetables and fruits grow with rare abandon, they do so only for a short season. With no means of refrigeration anything not consumed in the months of plenty is pickled. Us English are known to enjoy an onion so preserved, but a peach!
As a statement on Afghanistan’s long and troubled history ‘Carry on Up the Khyber’ is perhaps the worst ever consigned to celluloid. Frivolity and farce are not part of the Afghan story. This is a serious land of severe and serious deeds. As I sipped my tea I thought of the kite runners of Kabul: such earnest innocence in the face of such dread.
A delicate dish of fried aubergine was followed by a platter of Mantoo and Ashak, giant ravioli like pasta parcels, filled with minced lamb or stewed leek, topped with strained tomato. This was Mediterranean, not Middle Eastern, fare. It was a reminder that Afghanistan is a Eurasian state, influenced as much by Caucasian Europe as its Asian neighbours. The men, stocky and striking, Pashtun and Tajik, have blue eyes and fairer skin than the tribesmen of neighbouring Pakistan. They are born in the borderlands of east and west, courted and conquered by covetous cousins.
But as if to resist classification the next dish, a boiled shank of lamb in a bed of currant-infused rice, brought scents of Persia and India in its aroma. For me boiling is a procedure more suited to non-sentient organisms, but the meat was as tender as a lullaby and very enjoyable. There was an absence of the spice and rich seasoning you would expect in the Kashmir. Beyond the Khyber Pass lies a different land.
Afghanistan is as beguiling as it is brutal, an ancient and alluring land, whatever preconceptions and misconceptions you may arrive with.