Viola: What country, friends, is this?
Sea Captain: This is Illyria, lady.
Viola: And what should I do in Illyria? My brother he is in Elysium.'
From: 'Twelfth Night' Act 1, Scene ii, by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Apologies for being a bit elusive of late, I've just got too many plates in the air at the moment. I conceived the idea for a children's story a couple of months ago and it's being obsessing me. I have to write it, just to get it out of my head. It might be really bad and I've got more unfinished novels in my virtual desk drawer than I care to remember, but this one is going well so far and I'm about half way through. So I'm sorry for neglecting you my dear blog friends.
I've been wanting to do a post about Albania again, and today is a good day. Poor Albania, like so many places in the world, some other country has often had a jealous eye on its land. It's been like a football played by too many teams. To ancient writers and right up to the time of Shakespeare, Albania was that most romantic of destinations - Illyria. I went there in the 1980s and had the best holiday I've ever had in my life. I loved the people, the climate, the countryside, the architecture and the food!
I went with an organised tour, the only way you could get in during the Communist days. Thirty or so extraordinary people in one old Chinese bus. There were two dentists, a Classics teacher, a physics teacher, a professor of philosophy, a barrister, a journalist from the FT, (travelling incognito) a couple of lawyers, the Deputy Head of the Royal Ballet School.....and we all got on extraordinarily well, partly because we had a wonderful Albanian guide who worked in the English Department of the University of Tirana. We went folk dancing in basements (pop music was not allowed), we listened to Ancient Greek poetry being recited in ancient ruins - and didn't understand a word, I had a bit of a pash on an old Etonian in the group and we had an English picnic at Butrint, now a world heritage site.
One day we went to the fabulous castle at Kruje. It's just like a castle ought to be, with a cluster of tiny houses divided by cobbled streets, clinging to its outer walls, and it's not done up for tourists, not even a souvenir shop in sight.
Outside the castle, is the huge statue of the Albanian national hero, Skanderberg or Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu to give him his proper name. Here he is in a portrait in the Uffizzi Museum in Florence.
Skanderberg was a fifteenth century Albanian patriot. Although he was initially appointed as a regional administrator by the Ottomans who ruled Albania at the time, he turned against them and for twenty years headed a resistance movement which sought to free Albania from Ottoman rule. Today is the anniversary of the battle that Skanderberg won at Kruje in 1443, and the first day the Albanian flag was raised there.
We went round the castle in an organised party and I realised part of the way through that my friend Kathy (she'll be reading this) was missing. Anxious that she didn't miss the bus, I went looking for her. I found her in one of the tiny houses nearby, being entertained by a local family who were hospitably giving her glass of tea accompanied by a tiny saucer on which there was a spoonful of jam. Was it cherry jam? I can't remember, but I do remember how odd I thought it to serve jam without bread. But that's how they do it. It's the equivalent of a biscuit or a piece of cake...something to sweeten the mouth.
Here's Skanderbeg on his horse in the main square at Kruje.
A few weeks ago I made damson cheese, which is the damson equivalent of membrillo or quince cheese which of course isn't cheese at all, but super reduced jam. It's exactly the sort of thing to serve with a nutty piece of real cheese...or even alone on a plate. You can mould it in lots of ways, I used scallop shells.
This doesn't have to be too exact. Take about 4lb of damsons and wash them. Put them in a pan and heat gently until the fruit starts to break down, stir now and again to prevent the fruit catching the bottom of the pan. Now the hard part. When the fruit is really soft and all the stones are floating around in it, pass the puree through a sieve to extract stones and bits of skin. Once you have your puree, add about 2 and a half pounds of sugar, whack up the heat and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Now turn the heat right down, so that the puree is just simmering and let it cook for at least an hour. You must keep an eye out that it doesn't burn. When you have a really thick puree - a spoon will leave a clear trail across the bottom of the pan, bottle it up or put it into moulds. I keep mine in the fridge for up to a year.
Don't worry if it crystallises as you keep it, you can remelt it if you wish, but I quite like it grainy.
Oh Albania, poor Albania,
Who has shoved your head in the ashes?
Once you were a great lady,
The men of the world called you mother....
From 'Poor Albania' by Pashko Vasa (1825-1892)