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Slovenia for gastronomes

Slovene cuisine is a diverse blend of heritage recipes and Austrian, Croatian and Balkan culinary influences

Huge discs of Alpine cheese at a stall near Lake Bohinj. Photo: Kalpana Sunder
Huge discs of Alpine cheese at a stall near Lake Bohinj. Photo: Kalpana Sunder

We are deep in the windswept Vipava Valley—a major wine-growing region of Slovenia—enjoying a specially curated meal at the 19th century Saksida Farm. The meal has been cooked by Marko Saksida, a talented chef who has worked in top restaurants in Paris and Rome. His wife Ingrid works with him and they pride themselves on crafting each dish as a work of art. It helps that my husband and I are travelling with Ales Fevrier, who, besides being our guide, is also a brilliant food photographer. In total, the meal consists of six choreographed courses, each paired with a different wine from the Saksida vineyards.

Slovenia has many such farmhouses with bold and experimental young chefs who proudly recreate the dishes of their ancestors and add their own twist to traditional recipes. At Saksida Farm, Ingrid explains what each dish is, and the combinations are a delight to the palate. The starter is a lollypop with pumpkin seeds and cheese, set artistically on a gnarled piece of vine. The pumpkin soup with parsley cream, watermelon and cheese just hits the spot on a cold day. The main course is gnocchi with herbs, dried tomato and smoked with dry melon mint. We finish with apple strudel and tiramisu cream. By the end of the meal, I feel like I have just witnessed an amazing performance.

Slovenia, a speck on the map of Europe, crams diverse idyllic landscapes, from turquoise lakes, waterfalls and tiny churches to a network of caves and the snow-capped Julian Alps. As a vegetarian, I didn’t go with too many expectations—at the most, I expected potato pancakes, cabbage and mush. Once I arrived, however, I discovered a tiny country with diverse culinary influences from its neighbours. “The country has 24 gastronomic regions and the freshest of ingredients," says Fevrier. The Italian presence is especially strong with pizzas and pasta on many menus. The food also takes its cues from Austria, Croatia and the Balkan region. Modern Slovenian cuisine also features reinterpretations of ancient peasant recipes by talented chefs.

In January, chef Ana Roš of the restaurant Hiša Franko in the little town of Kobarid was named the World’s Best Female Chef by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, shining the spotlight on Slovene cuisine. Many predict that this will herald a new Slovene food revolution globally and do for the country what New Nordic Cuisine did for Scandinavia. And this definitely bodes well for a culinary holiday to these parts.

Ricotta soufflé with spinach cream. Photo: Kalpana Sunder

On our first night in the country’s capital Ljubljana, we have a delightful meal at Špajza, a small rustic restaurant located in a heritage house with timber beams and frescoed ceilings, built in 1847, on a side street in the Old Town. It’s run by Petra Sorbara and her brother, whose passion for food and fresh ingredients shines through even in a simple starter of buffalo mozzarella with fresh figs and honey.

Over the next week, as we drive through the countryside, experiencing its beauty and its varied cuisine. At Lake Bled, ringed by lush forests and the Julian Alps, we feast on the region’s iconic dessert—the Lake Bled cream cake—at the legendary Hotel Park. This exquisite dessert, made from delicate puff pastry atop layers of light vanilla cream and custard, was invented by the Hungarian pastry chef Ištvan Lukačević, who moved to Bled from Serbia after World War II.

Our next stop is Idrija, a love Alpine town historically associated with mercury mines. From here, we head north to Vila Podvin, an elegant restaurant and hotel near the village of Radovljica and about 7km from Lake Bled. I meet the restaurant’s talented chef Uroš Štefelin, who reinvents ancient recipes using traditional ingredients. The star of the meal is a dish known as Idrijski žlikrofi. These hat-shaped pasta pouches filled with puréed potato, chives, black pepper and smoked bacon are part Polish and part Italian.

Over the next few days, I try out food at street kiosks and open-air markets. The burek (a flaky pastry filled with cheese or meat) is my pick, while my husband can’t have enough of the spicy sausages. One of our most delightful food experiences is at the Open Kitchen in the Ljubljana Central market. Every Friday, over 30 food stalls offering both Slovenian and international food pop up in the quaint square—from modern restaurants run by independent chefs to traditional gostilnas, or heritage Slovene restaurants, and wine and beer stalls. It is a memorable afternoon with good food, conversation and laughter.

Mozzarella di Bufala on yellow carrot cream at Saksida Farm. Photo: Kalpana Sunder

Every Slovene meal begins with a soup, accompanied by a bread basket. I try a variety of breads with seeds, walnuts, rye and buckwheat. One of my favourite accompaniments for bread is a nutty pumpkin oil; this oil is drizzled over salads, soups and even vanilla ice cream! Another staple for vegetarians is the Slovenian stew, a hearty meal of beans, potatoes, barley and vegetables.

We fall in love with the prekmurska gibanica, a traditional layered pastry with shortbread at the bottom, topped with layers of walnuts, apples, raisins, poppy seeds, ricotta and finished with cream. The word gibanica is a derivative of the Serbian verb gibati, meaning “to fold", and the dessert is popular across the Balkans.

Before I leave the country, I pick up dark chocolate with sea salt from Piran on the coast, and a packet of dried pumpkin seeds—a small reminder of this beautiful country’s many flavours.

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