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Extract from Part Seven: Cheese

Mishavine - Accursed Mountains, Albania

Running along the northern border of Albania is a mountain range called Bjeshkët e Namuna, the ‘Accursed Mountains’. Until recently, major roads didn’t extend to the villages here, leaving this one of the most isolated parts of Europe. It’s also one of the poorest. For four decades, the country’s Marxist dictator, Enver Hoxha, forced Albanians into a secretive and solitary state, every aspect of their lives controlled, including their food. My guide here, in search of traditional food ways that had survived the dictatorship, was an Italian aid worker in his sixties, Pier Paolo Ambrosi.

The higher up into the highlands we travelled, the further back in time it all felt. ‘This road is a link between the old world and the new,’ said Ambrosi, referring to a track still under construction that eventually tapered off into gravel. We passed people guiding horse-driven carts stacked with sheaths of hay and were forced to stop and wait as shepherds moved their flocks along the path ahead, the bells around their necks ringing out as they headed towards the mountain pasture. ‘They have right of way here,’ Ambrosi said as the sheep surrounded the jeep.

Our destination was Lepushe, a scattering of houses made of wood and stone at the top of a glorious plateau, close to the border with Montenegro. Around us were miles of ancient pasture; wild grasses and flowers filled the vast open space enclosed by snow-capped peaks in the distance. It was here, on one of his early expeditions, that Ambrosi discovered a cheese that Neolithic farmers would have recognised, Mishavinë, a food that harked back to the very beginnings of cheese-making and dairy animals. Elsewhere in Albania food traditions had been wiped out along with religion; under the dictatorship there had been just two state-approved cheeses, ‘white cheese’ and ‘yellow cheese’. But in the highlands, Mishavinë hadn’t changed for a thousand years. Just three farmers were left making this cheese and one of them lived in Lepushe, a man called Luigj Cekaj. There, in the Accursed Mountains, Cekaj and his wife Lumtumire were keeping one of Europe’s most endangered food traditions alive.

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