Albanian mountain crops that make us look young. While Albanian wild herbs are sought after internationally, the industry offers great economic opportunities and freedom for women like Donika Musaj. It was a quick start to my morning commute, and I was still as overwhelmed with jars of cream and tubes of sunscreen as sets of minibuses.
Mountainous regions of northern Albania
I was on my way to the Albanian town of Kukus, which I was warned would be a two hour bumpy ride in the highlands. Our bus was full of people and their packages were beyond capacity. The travelers had fair skin and the large bone structure that I am used to seeing in men and women from the mountainous regions of northern Albania, but their luggage surprised me.
Why do you love the world?
“Because here you can drink plenty of air. Food tastes better and everything around us is ours: we make it ourselves.” – Donika Musaj, collector of wild aromatic and medicinal plants
More reasons to love the world
There is a terrifying saying from traditional Albanian law about the rules that determine community life that says that “a woman is a coat to be used well.” But here, prickly women in headscarves and long black stripes made good use of the sacks, carrying them on the bus and around their men.
Beside me, a woman held a yeast-filled carrying bag with half a dozen large loaves of white bread fresh from a bakery. In front of her was the woman whom she had already heard arguing with the driver that a huge fragrant sheet was tied around a large mass of stems and flowers, some of which were scattered across the floor of the minibus.
Fortunately, to my curiosity, a woman, who later introduced herself as “Naeem’s wife,” in an indicator of the region’s traditional views towards women, was eager to tell the entire minibus that the grass What there were in that pile of pillows to bring back home from Kukës.
“Without the stem they said! Last year they were happy to have the stem! But now apparently, it is not acceptable. So everyone has to go home. I will probably feed it to the sheep.”
Turns out, she was talking about cows, one of the many wild-collected medicinal plants in Albania. Her package was rejected because she simply picked the stem instead of the flower, apparently a new and unexpected rule in the market where she has come to sell her flowers.
"So you go out to pick flowers?" I asked.
Once my interest became apparent, the trip turned into an illustrated lecture. For example, Naeem’s wife scattered some dried yellow flowers on my hand, known locally as finger flowers. “Look at the way the flowers are grouped together like a hand,” she said. The person in front of me pointed out the window. “Elderflower. One euro per kilo.”
Someone else joined: and hawthorn flower, picking up what is hard on the hands. I was learning a new way to analyze the field. The town of Cookes is located in the mountainous areas of northeast Albany. All the flowers that these gatherers eventually found came out of the mountains and into cookies sold for export.
But I asked my fellow travelers how they used what they had chosen for themselves. Perhaps I should have guessed the answer: the destination of our minibus was a town called Sazi, pronounced tea. He was traveling to a town called “Chai”.
The region is typical of much of Albania, being 77% mountainous, and benefits from a Mediterranean climate and land, which had very little chemical pollution during the difficult communist years, which ended in the early 1990s.
All these factors make Albanian herbs collected from the wild especially in demand internationally. The industry offers great economic opportunities for the women riding my bus, although its harvest must meet international standards so as not to contain too many unusable materials, such as stalks.
When I arrived at Donica Musaj’s family guesthouse, Buztina Musaj, I expected to find some of the so-called “mountain tea” characteristic of Albania, a comforting wine, as yellow as the light of a lamp, from the ironwort plant, Sideritis. Syriaca. Instead, I was served a dark tisane made with dried cranberries.
“We harvested 100 kilograms of blueberry last year,” said Musaj, as I appreciated the antioxidant concentration of the fruit along with its inherent musky flavor. This family, and those represented in minibuses, were part of the more than 100,000 Albanian families involved in the cultivation or collection of medicinal and aromatic plants.
Across the country, it accounts for one in seven households associated with the sector, generating up to $ 28 million (over £ 20 million) in exports. Between 2018 and 2019, 12,000 tons of cows, made from blueberries and other plants, were in demand from the foreign gastronomic and pharmaceutical markets.
“Come and see,” Musach said and led me upstairs to show me the latest contribution to that huge tonnage. Her upper balcony has turned yellow and the cow rug drying in the hot summer air. It was as if he had brought a particularly rich meadow to his house.
I eagerly searched for the stems, but Musach only knew how to pick the flowers; when this pile was carried on a sheet and the cookie was carried, there was no danger that they would be rejected.
And then they go from cookies, through middlemen and exporters, to overseas companies that are starving for good quality wild-collected Primula Veris. Faded paper buttons may not seem like a potential ingredient for eye tonics, serums, and masks with adjectives like “brighten” and “lighten skin,” “brighten” or “anti-aging,” but products we’ve come across.
Our priority is the animals
See in his beauty magazines, they lay on these pieces of dried Albanian cows on balconies, humpbacked in minivans and then, with a favorable wind, they flew out into the world. I thought about the little white jar of cream this morning and wondered how many hours it took to prepare.
“We go out in season from 8 a.m. at 6pm, ”Musaz told me. I could see women dotting the hills, armed with curved knives that gave them the appearance of a pirate, and wearing their gathered sacks like aprons.
That is what we do from May to September. From October the snow arrives and there are no flowers. So our priority is the animals. Musaz’s husband, Xeladin, said. “We love it here. I love the fresh air. I don’t want to go to a corner store. I don’t like Coke. I have my own organic version, a yogurt drink called Dhalli.
Dinner featured a delicious display of what the family had on hand: sorrel pie, homemade cheese, a salad of home-grown tomatoes, roasted house peppers. Even the scroll you are sitting on, Musaj pointed to the comfortable pillow he was lying on. She was our sheep.
I felt a bit uncomfortable at home
Albanian herbs collected from the wild are in international demand. “And the bread. The closest bakery is two hours away. Therefore, the bread is also homemade,” he said. The mystery of the thick bags on the bus was solved. Those simple loaves were a valuable labor-saving item to bring in from town when the opportunity arose.
After dinner, I went out in the evening with Ardian, Musaj’s son. Night was falling and in the midst of utter despair an ancient scene became reality. A line of tired horses, nylon sacks tied around them, were led by equally tired-looking men from the pastures above the town. Ardian explained what he was looking for.
Albania’s mountain plants
They have spent yesterday and today in search of flowers and have spent the night in their mountain huts. Female collectors do not go as far as male collectors. But while their geographic range may be more limited, the independence of the medicinal and aromatic plant economies for women like Musaj, despite other factors pushing them into more traditional roles, is very clear.
Anila Alliaj, from the NGO Connecting Natural Values with People (CNVP), which has a project that develops the region with funds from the Swedish Embassy and is currently working with more than 1,000 farmers, spoke about this. sack and machete.
She said this sector gives women the opportunity to earn an income and become financially independent from their husbands. But women should not only be worker harvesters of plants, but also decision makers in the trade of the products. Most of the farmers working on her project are women.
Aishe Iwani, a nurse from Sajo Village, echoed how medicinal plants help her community to become independent. She also goes out to collect plants in her spare time, and says that “the nature with which God has blessed us, we are our doctors.”
At 53, she is another woman whose skin I admire and I asked her if she thought cows had something to do with the flowers on their cheeks. However, she seemed like she had more faith in nutrition than in the contents of that little white pot I was pinning my anti-wrinkle hopes in. It’s organic food that keeps me young.
For those of us who find it easier to incorporate something into our wellness regimen in the bathroom cabinet than in the kitchen cupboard, Albania’s mountain plants offer another hope. Helichrysum so-called “eternal flower” oil is another ingredient to “restore” night serums and “revitalize” facial products.
Like the skin of cows, it is another plant that is grown in this pure mountain air and is used by cosmetic companies around the world for its properties to maintain skin tone. Helichrysum, known as “eternal flower”, is an ingredient in night serums and other facial products.
As I was heading north towards Albania, on the side of the road I came across another group of women plucking beautiful colored leaves. She said that she had traveled here from Grumiro, a nearby town; the name translates to “Good Woman”. They were working at Helichrysum and I asked if I could take a picture of them.
Communities around the world
“Yes, but please show me pretty,” said one of them with a smile. Thinking of the precious oils and petals that they supply to our direct line cosmetics companies; It makes more sense to me, than to all of us, to ask them this. BBC Travel celebrates 50 Reasons to Love the World in 2021 through the inspiration of unsung heroes alongside well-known voices in local communities around the world.
Join over 3 million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook or following us on Twitter and Instagram. If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com which includes a newsletter called “The Essential List”. A carefully curated selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.