East and west intersect in the Balkans
Coffee, espresso and cappuccinos are done well all around the Mediterranean and the Balkans, sit was no surprise to get this delicious combo in a spiffy coffee shop in the middle of the slightly seedy harbor district in Vlore.
Not seedy as in dangerous – in fact all of Albania felt as safe as could be – but seedy in the sense of scamming taxi drivers and vendors selling tickets for phantom boats at inflated prices. Our slight brush with this came as we carried our backpacks toward customs. A guy in an official-looking bright orange vest steered toward the maze and then gestured to us that we should put our packs down on a bench while the border guards examined our passports. He seemed to be suggesting that he would guard them for us while we dealt with the formalities, kind of like those guys on some tropical beaches who offer to watch your stuff while you swim, with the implication that they’ll steal it if you don’t hire them. Our man in Albania wanted a couple of Euro for his troubles.
Vlore is seedy in a good way, as all harbor towns should be, and it’sdefinitely a crossroads for Southeastern Europe. Our Italian-style cappuccino and croissant represented that intermingling of cultures. As a certified coffee freak, I love a country where most cafes offer both Italian-style espresso-based drinks and thick-brewed Turkish coffee.
Legend has it the famed pastry was invented by a baker in Budapest to commemorate a victory over Ottoman invaders — thus the crescent shape. Another variation of the legend is that Viennese bakers, awake in the wee hours of the morning, heard Turkish troops tunneling under the city and gave the alarm that allowed time for a successful defence of the city.
Food historians say they can conclusively disprove this story based on painstaking research of historic recipes, but it’s a fun tale nonetheless. What we do know is that, while the croissant has become a French icon, the pasty was actually invented in Austria, with records showing mention of the Austrian “Kipferl” as far back as the 13th century.
An Austrian military officer who opened a Viennese bakery in Paris in 1838 brought the pastry to the French — the rest, as they say, is history.
Now, there might be some French bakers out there who would dispute this version of the story, but because of my Austrian heritage, I’m sticking with it.
The dark, chocolate-filled croissants in Vlore didn’t have much of that classic crescent shape that symbolizes the near-eastern Orient (think Turkish flag), but they were so good that we bought a couple of extras to go for the long ferry ride, munching them on deck as we watched the forested mountains of Albania’s western shoreline fade into the hazy ocean mists.