What have I learned about making assumptions in Albania? Don’t do it. There are times when the situation might still play out as you had hoped. But add in the language barrier, difference in culture and general confusion of life and there is a recipe for disaster.
If you hadn’t guessed, I love food. I love cooking and baking and everything that goes along with it. More so, the taste testing than the actual clean up but beggars can’t be choosers. Whenever I make something here, it is usually the “Albanianized” version of that dish. Unless we had some of the foreign ingredients sent in a care package, we’re out of luck. Therefore, plenty of substitutions and twists are made on those delicacies that we are craving. You can usually find me in the corner aisle of the store in Permet, with my phone out and Google translate working hard.(I know, I know, Google translate on my phone in a Peace Corps country. Albania is a strange country, with some of those first world luxuries, mixed in with those third world struggles.) I prefer the brands that have pictures to cut out some of the guesswork. However, I am starting to get better about reading labels in Shqip and Greek. Or so I thought.
Becoming a good cook is all about making mistakes, learning, adjusting and becoming a better chef for it. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. When it’s just me in Permet, I don’t mind making errors in the kitchen. I have been known to eat almost anything and when you factor in our volunteer budget. Well, lets just say I would have to mess something up quite badly to throw it out! I am sad to say, this last week was one of those times. I had bought ingredients to make cookie and pizza dough earlier in the week. This was one of those trips that I wanted to get in and out of the store as fast as possible. No translating, searching or trying to ask for an ingredient. If we’re being honest, I was just being lazy. I did stop to answer the usual questions about my health, my family, where I was the previous weekend, and where I would be this next weekend. You can’t cut out Albania completely. After getting home, I started a movie marathon and began making my cookie dough. After tasting it, I thought something tasted a little off but figured they would taste better after baking. Something still tasted weird. I triple checked the recipe and that I added everything I was suppose to. At a loss for what went wrong, I moved on to my next recipe. I made pizza dough according to my new-found skills from my Italy trip. After letting the dough rise for a couple hours and making a pizza, I tasted that same weird flavor. I realized I couldn’t be imagining that sourness and got out the “salt” packet that I had bought earlier. It looked like salt, had the same packaging as salt but had a word I didn’t recognize on back. I tasted a tiny bit, and it definitely was NOT salt. I broke out my Google app and realized that I had accidentally bought tartaric acid.
“Tartaric acid is a white crystalline diprotic aldaric acid. It occurs naturally in many plants, particularly grapes, bananas, and tamarinds, is commonly combined with baking soda to function as a leavening agent in recipes, and is one of the main acids found in wine. It is added to other foods to give a sour taste, and is used as an antioxidant.”
As you can imagine, tartaric acid does not taste good in cookie dough or pizza dough, or anything else for that matter. Intense disappointment set in when I realized I had used a precious cup of my brown sugar to make these cookies that were going in the trash. Brown sugar is one of those ingredients that you cannot find anywhere in Albania. Which is why cookies are a special occasion only dessert here.
In between cooking failures, I hosted some volunteers in Permet. We had a great weekend hiking around Permet and soaking up the spring weather.
We also found our way to the water reservoir that is located about an hour’s walk outside of Permet. After trampling through a farmers yard, trying to ask her where this “lake” was, confusing her more and not getting a clear answer, we continued on our way. Not before, setting off every single animal in her yard. The dogs were barking, chickens crowings, sheep baaing and the cows were mooing as we stepped off her property. We were able to find the water reservoir but figured it was best to find a different pathway back home.
In honor of Saint Patrick’s day coming up, I decided that beer bread would be a good side dish. We even had some green food coloring left over from a care package. After baking the bread for an hour and taking it out of the oven, I could tell something wasn’t right. Turns out, you shouldn’t assume that you are using self rising flour. Since the entire package was written in greek, I actually had no idea what type of flour I was using, just that it was white, like flour should be. As I sat and stared at my brick of beer bread, I got a little frustrated. I was going to make it again and it WAS going to turn out. Round two came out of the oven looking better but it was definitely “Albanianized.” We didn’t have a loaf pan so we had to use a round flat pan that is used for almost everything else here. This resulted in a round, green flat-bread of sorts. At least, this time the bread was quite tasty, looked festive and wasn’t burnt so I viewed it as a big success.
After a week full of cooking mistakes, these memories are permanently etched in my brain. Never again, will I buy tartaric acid. For anything. Nor will I make assumptions about what I am buying in the store. Unless the package is in Greek, of which I cannot read a single word of. More “learning lessons” are probably in my future here in Albania. Which is okay, as long as my success record doesn’t turn into a negative number. Of course, there are always those go to recipes that you know will turn out. Which I found myself needing this last weekend. What better to turn to than a delicious box of American Brownie mix. Can’t mess that up and when we threw some Oreos in the mix, it was literally success in a pan!