Berat and Burek
After two days full of rain in Montenegro, the sun had started shining when I crossed the border with Albania by bus. The driver of the minibus asked for the passport and Corona certificate of me and the only other passenger of the bus, and after handing that to the border controls I finally drove into this new country. Unfortunately, it was getting dark so I could not see so much of the drive between the border and Tirana. But it still felt special to be able to enter this country that has opened to foreign tourists only so recently. Even more so as my parents told me the story about seeing the border and knowing they would not be able to enter.
The next morning, I picked up a car and went on the road. In Montenegro I had traveled by bus, but I wanted to see as much as possible during my few days in Albania. The big disadvantage of driving was definitely not being able to take pictures from the car, as driving in Albania felt quite special to me. Next to the road, there were sometimes people walking with cows, once with a group of turkeys, and some horse carriages as well. I first drove towards the mountains with Berat as a first stop. Berat, also known as the city of a thousand windows. The city is built on the hills surrounding the Osum River and consists of white Ottoman style houses. Because they are all one above the other, it is quite clear where the nickname comes from: there seem to be thousands of windows indeed. I went up to the castle of Berat, which is a fortress on top of one of the hills. It is a very special place, a mixture of ruins and inhabited houses.
I took a steep walking path straight up the hill to enter the castle. Apparently it was not the official way, but the shortest route according to my map. The first thing I saw after entering through a gate in the ruined wall was the colourful sight of Albanian carpets spread out all along the wall. The first ones I saw, but definitely not the last. In the end I even took one home, holding it on the airplane as it did not really fit into my small backpack. After getting my breath back from the steep climb and having enjoyed the view over the river and the rest of the city, it was time to discover the castle. It really is an interesting mixture, the old houses, churches and the ruin of a large mosque.
I was also getting hungry, but not really feeling like entering a proper restaurant. So I thought I would just buy something at a bakery on my way down. But instead there was a lady selling fig pie and burek with spinach and cheese from her porch. I decided this would be much more interesting to try, so asked for the burek. The lady invited me to come and eat in her garden. Unfortunately she did not speak any English. But then her grandchildren came down: a very young girl and her brother who was a bit older. To be honest, I never heard children of that age speaking English this well. I spent quite some time there chatting about their dog, their school, and their hobbies. Meanwhile I also got a glass of Ayran, the yoghurt based drink, and some very sweet and delicious candied melon. When I finally left their house and the castle, it started pouring down rain. I went back to the car with the best experience ever.
Pumpkin and feta pastry
The burek I had in Berat was not the only one. It is probably the thing I ate most in Albania and Montenegro. So of course, I had to give it a try coming back home. And as it is autumn and pumpkins are in season, I wanted to try adding some pumpkin instead of spinach. But I also love the spinach and cheese ones I usually took there.
Although I often like making my own dough, you can of course also use store-bought filo pastry, which is super easy and delicious!
Ingredients (for two)
- Flour – 170 grams flour
- Lukewarm water – 100 ml
- Olive oil
- Half a pumpkin – around 450 grams
- Feta or a similar white cheese – 75 grams
- Pumpkin seeds – 40 grams
- Oregano – 1 heaped teaspoon
- Sprig of rosemary and/or some leaves of sage
- Black pepper
- Olive oil
Preheat your oven to 220°C.
Start by preparing the dough so that it has some time to rest. Place the flour with a good pinch of salt on your working surface. Make a well in the middle and start adding the water while mixing it in with the flour at the same time. Depending on the humidity in your kitchen, you might need a bit more or less water. Keep adding the water and mixing until all flour comes together in a soft dough. Knead through well for a few minutes, until the dough is elastic and does not stick to your hands anymore. Divide the dough into two balls. Add a good lug of olive oil to a bowl, roll both doughballs through the oil and set aside to let them rest in the bowl.
Now it is time to focus on the filling. Peel the pumpkin and chop it into small cubes of less than a centimeter on all sides. Place into a baking tray and season with salt and black pepper. Add a tablespoon of olive oil and make sure all pieces are coated. Place the baking tray in the oven and roast the pumpkin for about 25 minutes, while stirring halfway through so that all pieces cook evenly. After 25 minutes, the pumpkin should be soft and slightly browned.
Meanwhile, break the feta cheese up with your hands and put into a bowl. Add the pumpkin seeds, the oregano and a good pinch of black pepper. Take the rosemary needles of the sprig and finely chop them up before adding them to the feta as well. If you use the sage, chop the leaves finely and add to the feta too. Once the pumpkin is done, take it out of the oven and let it cool down a bit before adding to the feta mixture.
Turn the oven down to 200°C. Once the filling has been prepared, the time has come for the trickiest part. Take one of the balls of dough out of the bowl and flatten with your hands. As the dough is covered in oil, you do not have to dust your working surface with flour in this case. Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough to a square of about half a centimeter thick. Then, use your hands to carefully stretch the dough out further. You can stretch it out until it is see-through. Don’t worry if it rips a bit, as you will fold it. Once the whole piece of dough has been stretched, brush it with a little bit of extra olive oil and fold it twice in halves over itself. The idea is to end up with a square again, so you can stretch the folded dough if needed to end up with a square. Repeat the same with the other piece of dough.
Finally, add the pumpkin filling on top of one of the pieces of dough leaving a bit of space around the edges. Place the second sheet of dough over the top and press the edges together. If you have thick pieces of dough at the edges, chop those off. Place the pie on a baking tray and brush with a bit of olive oil. Then, place it in the preheated oven and bake for around 30 minutes, until crunchy and golden brown.