Albanian Products: The Vorba of Gojan 

Albanian Products: The Vorba of Gojan 

TIRANA, January 24

Sous Chef of Noma and Co-Founder of Rrno Foundation Fejsal Demiraj is spot on when he says that the Albanian traditional cooking ware is very esoteric in nature, addressing honest needs directly. He refers to the Vorba and the Sac.

Vorba is an earthenware meticulously crafted in some Albanian villages but Gojan has the best reputation. If you have seen one or have one at home, the odds are it was made in Gojan. Biba family is the only family in Albania that continues the craft exactly like it was done in the old days, with a combination of two types of soil known as ‘bote’ (bote is also used by Albanian Chams in southern Albania for soil). A vorba is commonly used for slow-cooked bean stew, cabbage, cured meat, or any dish that would feed a large group of people.

Vorba Gojan Albania
Shkelzen Biba making a vorba using a hand wheel. Photo credit: Ilir Shyti

The history of vorba

“Based on data provided by potters, the vorba-makers (vorbaxhinjte, gojanas, or fandas) supplied clay cooking pots to all the villages in northern and northeastern Albania. The presence of well-preserved earthen containers or their pieces all over the villages in that region of Albanian supports this claim.” Albanian Ethnography, Vol. 7-8, p. 191

Hand wheeled pottery is an old craft in Gojan. The craftsmanship was inherited only by the male line. This practice would guarantee that the craft would stay in the hands of the family.
A survey by professor Aferdita Onuzi based on findings from expeditions conducted in 1974 provides details on the technique used to make the Vorba and their trade.

About Gojan

Gojan i Madh Albania
Gojan i Madh during winter by local photographer and Environmental Engineer Ilir Shyti

Gojan village is located on a mountainous gorge southeast of Puka town. The village borders Fani i Madh river and Tej Fani mountain, and Kimze and Kalivar villages on the east, Guri i Bregut mountain on the west, Shkoza Torrent and Shkoza village in the north, and Gjegjan village on the south. The village is divided into two parts the Lower/Small Gojan, the Upper/Big Gojan.

The village is an excellent year-round destination for eco-adventurers. From blueberry picking to mountain hiking and wildlife photography, Gojani, and the surrounding region is a perfect choice for those that want to get up close with the natural world.

Vorba Craft

Vorba Gojan Albania
Vorba making process: Credit: Shija e Veriut

The word has it that the earthware craft is an old tradition in the village. Elder potters remembered the best potter masters, Pjeter Lesh Rrushkulli in Small Gojan and Gjergj Lleshi in the Upper Gojan. The family of Gjergj Lleshi inherited the craft and changed the name to Koreci. This was also one of the older names used for smaller vorba.
The family shared the craft with many others that showed an interest in learning it. During the 20s-30s, almost 80 percent of the population knew the craft. Some made vorba for personal use while others produced for trade. Continuous demand pushed them to increase and improve production.
The craft had its boom almost 100 years ago, then demand declined due to the introduction of more modern cookware. In 1975, only 15 potters lived in Gojan. Eleven of them inherited the craft from their fathers, one from the uncle, and three from the neighbors. It was common for the members of a potter family to have general knowledge about the vorba craft. However, those who wanted to learn would be involved in all the processes first as an apprentice and later as an independent potter. Usually, the potter would become completely independent by the age of 15-16 years.
In terms of economic value, pottery was a side activity. It was common during spring and early summer when there were not too many farming chores. It was estimated that one potter would make 600 vorba per year or 10 to 15 per day in peak season. The vorba craft was a good source of income for those who had not a lot of arable lands. However, at the time, none of the potters was able to make the craft the main source of income. They would also work in agriculture, woodworking/woodware, raw pine resin processing, etc.

Vorba making techniques and tools

Potters used quite simple tools. They were used to dig up the soil and during the various processes until the final product was ready.
The tools included an adze (eseri) for digging the soil. Lugu (lugji), was a two meters long hollowed-out log shaped like a log planter. It was filled with soil that was after beaten into a fine powder.
Maj, was a hammer used to beat the soil in the lugu.
A strainer was used to strain the beaten soil.

The handwheel. It was usually made of pine wood as it was the strongest wood in the area. The locals used the name toshejlle for the hand-wheel. Over the years, the hand-wheel somehow evolved however not as much as the hand-wheel used by potters in Farka, Tirana.
Franz Baron Nopcsa, who traveled through Northern Albania by the early 20th century didn’t fail to notice the potters in Gojan.
A wooden knife named bligje is used to make the grips and to flatten the external part of the vorba.
A wooden spoon is used to arch the mouth of the vase while its handle is used to make the decorations.
A piece of goatskin was used to polish the external of the vase. The tool’s name was zhaburete.

The ornaments of the vorba are simple and belong to an archaic system of decoration. They are applied in different ways. Common decorations include waved lines and tiny hollows. Waved lines that are found anywhere in folk art represent the serpent cult.

Vorba firing
Vorba firing process. Credit: Vorbat Gojan

When the vorba is finished it is left out to dry in a shadowed place for seven to eight days. The most optimal place would be a room without air circulation. The potter knows when the vorba is dry by the sound they make when slightly hit.
Afterward, they continue with the firing process, which is done in a quite primitive way. The potter starts a fire with dry juniper and bracken. The vases are placed on the fire and covered with more wood.
They are baked for about four hours. Afterward, the vorba is placed in a solution made of fat and salt. The smoke, the heat, and the solution give a dark color to the vase. This part of the process known as ushtim could also be done by a woman. The purpose of ushtim was to disinfect the vorba and to seal pores. It was common superstition for the person doing the ‘ushtim’ process to keep the mouth closed otherwise the vorba would break faster. Meanwhile, children can stay nearby murmuring ‘Vlo korec e mos u derdh’ which translates ‘Boil korec and don’t pour out’.

Vorba types and size

Vorbat Gojan
Diffeerent sizes, credit: Vorbat Gojan

The most common vorba were those of three, five, and ten liters volume. The potters used to make even 15-20 litters vorba but they were rare because the handwheels were not apt for such sizes. Even the name of the earthenware has changed over the years. The earliest names mentioned by the potters are Kuth and Korec. Later they changed to vegsha and vorba. Norbert Jokl explained those names with old Albanian words. Modern names include Kuce for containers over five liters. Vjerrca is an oval container that can be hanged by a hook.
Small one litter vorba are named cinga. These were used when milking cattle.
The Kupa is a clay casserole used to eat. Most of the orders for the Kupa were made from some villages in northern Albania.
Cerepe is another clay casserole made for baking bread.

The history of Vorba Trade

Vorba in a fair
Photo credit:

When all the vorba were baked and ready for trade, groups of three or four people would set on a trip to nearby or distant villages. The vorba were put in sacks filled with haystack. Up to 20 vorba would be carried on a single trip on the back if the village was close to Gojan. Mules were used for transportation when they had to travel long distances. An interesting fact is how the vorba was priced. The value of a single vorba was equal to the amount of cereal it would contain. However, the price would depend on the value of cereal overs different periods of the year. In normal conditions, the price would be one and a half vorba of corn, one vorba of wheat, two vorba of rye, half vorba of beans, etc.
During low producing years, the value of cereals would increase and the amount used in the exchange of a vorba would decrease. However, there have been cases after 1939 when they were sold for money. The value would still be equal to the amount of cereal that could be stuffed inside the vorba. The potters would sell all over the villages of Puka, but not in Gojan. Villagers would give each other a vorba maybe in exchange for a favor but never sell one. Common markets included the villages of Fushe-Arrez, Mirdita, Mati, Dibra, Kukesi (Luma and Hasi), Tropoja, Shkodra, Lezha, Miloti, Mamurrasi, etc.

Vorba craft never made it grow beyond the household activity. It remained a craft of a few individuals. The Gojani Vorba never saw competition from any other village.

However, Biba family managed to turn the craft into a source of income. Their activity is supported and promoted by Shija e Veriut, a project that backs local products from Puka, Vau Dejes, and Fushe Arrez, and creates links between producers and potential markets.

One or more vorba would be excellent pieces of clay cookware for houses and restaurants for preparing traditional Albanian recipes.

Source: Prof. Dr. Aferdita Onuzi

Read also: Albanian Products: The Mishavine Cheese of Kelmendi
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