Alpine Specialties from the Slovenian Kitchen
Close your eyes, and imagine the backdrop for every fairytale you’ve ever heard. The lush, dark forests, castles perched like birds of prey on cliff-tops, fortified churches, waterfalls, gorges, and postcard-perfect lakes of the imagination, are all made real in Slovenia. This oft-overlooked gem of a country, nestled between Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia has an enormous amount to offer the intelligent traveler, especially when it comes to food.
I’m lucky enough to have a Slovenian mother-in-law who is a fantastic cook. A cook, not a chef, for the cuisine of Slovenia is unrefined—and all the better for it. While there are a handful of fine dining restaurants, the vast majority of Slovenia’s best eating establishments are called gostilnas, country inns. The attitude toward food there is down-home, lots of meat and heavy sauces, little regard for health food options, and as large portions as possible. Slovenian food is more diverse than that of its Austrian neighbor, with influences descending from the alps, rising from the Mediterranean, swept off the Pannonian plain from Hungary, and carried up from southern Yugoslavia. This is not a country that promotes vegetarianism, nor is it for those on a diet. But for the rest of us, it is a slice of heaven.
Traditional Slovene meals begin with one of two soups: beef noodle or mushroom. Recipes tend to vary surprisingly little, the beef soup always filled with fresh, hand-made noodles, and the broth built on beef shank boiled with carrots and bay leaves. Mushroom soup starts with fresh porcini mushrooms, which sprout in abundance throughout Slovenia’s forests (hunting them is something of a national pastime), and can be creamy or clear-brothed. Soup is accompanied by wonderful bread. Having lived throughout Europe, and most recently in Italy (which is not renowned for bread, to say the least), Slovene bakeries are heavenly. The diversity of breads is astonishing: dusted with seeds, laced with onion, dotted with walnuts or sunflower seeds, made with corn flower, buckwheat, rye, or wholegrain. Softness is prioritized over texture, external crunch, and chew, which may not be to everyone’s taste (the French would scoff at this), but it certainly tastes good to most of us. It is largely a conduit for sauces, and the sauces are aplenty.
For lighter meals, my favorite category of Slovenian food is known as enolončnice. Roughly translated to “meals in bowl,” they ride the line between stews and soups, and all are hearty and warming. Golaž and bograč borrow from neighboring Hungary, thick stews of meat with paprika. Obara is a clear stew of chicken or veal, enriched with grains. Ričet features spelt or barley, segadin balances the meat with cabbage. Each region has its own variations on these one-bowl meals, and all are satisfying, offering grain, vegetables, and meat in each spoonful.
To these one might add žganci, a buckwheat crumble made from boiling buckwheat flour and gathering the cooked crumbs with a slotted spoon. The crumble is scattered into enolončnice to make the meals more filling, or can even be eaten with kislo mleko, sour milk—a product that tastes better than it sounds. Milk is left out to partially-curdle for one to two days, so it arrives at the consistency of smooth yogurt. Too little time, and it just tastes like milk, perhaps a bit past its prime. Leave it out too long, and it can make you sick. This is not for the faint-hearted. But the right amount of time results in a tangy homemade yogurt.
For more elaborate meals, mains in Slovenia revolve around large cuts of meat with a side of potatoes, kisla zelje (sauerkraut), or a variation on sauerkraut that also tastes a lot better than it sounds: sour turnip, called kisla repa. The meats are browned and then steamed, cooked far longer than is popular elsewhere. You’ll only find rare-cooked meats at more upscale restaurants. This is a holdover from the leaner days of Socialism, when meat was more of a luxury. Cuts of meat tend to be thin, to maximize portions—so thin, in fact, that rare cooking is an impossibility. Thicker cuts must be specially requested, and are often met with looks of confusion from local butchers. This habit of cooking meat through means that the meat itself offers more of a texture than a flavor—what you wind up tasting is the sauce. Natural sauces from pečenice (cooked sausage), krvavica (blood sausage), and zrezeki (cutlets) are sautéed in sunflower oil or lard studded with cracklings, enriched by white flour, and flavored with bouillon cubes. Other sauces feature loads of sour cream and melted soft cheeses. Not exactly diet material, and saltier than western tastes will be used to, but the resulting meals are hugely satisfying, filling, and warming in the winter months.
Perhaps my favorite Slovene main is called fila, a form of stuffing that I had never before encountered before moving to Slovenia (where my wife was born). Butchers will cut a pork rib in a special way, to prepare this dish. The ribs and the meat of the flank are kept together, rather than split into two distinct cuts, but a pouch is opened between the two, forming a cavity that you can stuff before roasting. The stuffing is none of the breadcrumb-y American affair, but a delicious cholesterol bomb of cubed bread, smoked sausage, loads of garlic, a shovel-full of sour cream, and many, many eggs. This results in a moist, rich, firm-omelet-like stuffing that is sliced and served in a pile beside the roasted pork.
Dessert is another realm where Slovenian cuisine shines. The best cakes I’ve ever had were consumed in Ljubljana (at a certain pastry shop called Zvezda), and the homemade versions are just as wonderful. The two national desserts are potica and gibanica. Potica is a Bundt cake made by grandmothers everywhere, particularly around Christmas. It is traditionally filled with ground walnuts, but variations with poppy seeds, chocolate, hazelnuts, and even sage may be found. The image of grandmothers, rolling out homemade dough on the kitchen table, then using a table cloth to pinch and twirl the filled dough into a cable that is then coiled into a Bundt pan, is the Slovene equivalent of a Norman Rockwell painting of granny carving the Christmas turkey. The resulting marbled cake, not crumbly but firm, represents the taste of the holidays for Slovenes.
The more complex dessert, symbol of the far-flung Prekmurje region, is called Prekmurska Gibanica, which translates as “Over-the-River-Mura Moving Cake.” While the origins of its name are uncertain, the multi-faceted recipe is not. The cake is more of a moist mille-feuille, with layers of pastry, poppies, shredded apple, crushed walnut, and optional chopped grapes, served warm. It makes for a meal in itself, or one heck of a dessert.
Slovenian food is a wonderful hybrid of alpine sausage and sauces, Austrian pastries, Hungarian stews, Balkan meats, and a gentle touch of northern Italian flavor. While not suited for light eaters, vegetarians, and the health-conscious, it is rich, hearty, and ideal for winter, or for a feast of a holiday, any time of year.
This was an excerpt from Slovenology the book. Check out much more inside.