What Goes Into the Best Slovenian Gift Package?
I love grocery shopping. This is not on everyone’s list of favorite things to do, but for me a stroll down the aisles is a walk through a new culture (though I’ve lived away from my native America for so long that even when I’m at a grocery store back there, I feel like a stranger in a strange land). The shelves of Dutch, Italian, British or Slovene supermarkets are full of possibility, delicious and often weird, new and offering a glimpse into a foreign culture. Ljubezen skozi zelodec is the saying ("Love goes through the stomach"), but I might counter with Kultura skozi spajzi ("Culture goes through the pantry"). What do Slovenes keep in their pantries and refrigerators that is different from Americans? What edible treats that Slovenes find perfectly normal are exotic and wondrous to foreigners? We can deal with dishes another time, but what about basic ingredients?
This question came to the fore when my Australian friend offered to do a care package exchange: he’ll mail me a box of Australian goodies and I mail him a box of Slovene ones. The deal was that we had to choose things that were local specialties that would be impossible to buy elsewhere. This sounded like great fun, so I set off for the local market.
But this is a trickier game than you might think. The first items I thought of to send him, things I would have fed him if he were visiting in person, are not feasible to ship. Zganje, ocvirki, Refosk ali Teran vino, Teranov liker, pivi iz lokalne mikropivovarne, krvavice, kranjska klobasa, kislo mleko, potica, kisla repa, kajmak. Any of these would be wildly exotic for my Aussie friend, but none of it was suitable to ship across the globe. Those treats will have to wait until he ships himself over here. So I had to focus on lightweight dry goods. What I chose will likely seem boring to Slovenes, who probably think of these goods as so commonplace as to not be worth mentioning. But that is exactly why I mention them.
Slovenes rarely realize just how wonderful a place Slovenia is, and it is my pleasure to point out why Slovenes live in the best possible country—with some exciting items in your pantry.
I began with coffee. It took me awhile to get used to Turkish coffee, which Americans never drink—I used to think it tasted, well, soapy. But now I can’t start my day without it. I also got used to Barcaffe. Normal Barcaffe is, by definition, of low quality (only coffee made from Arabica beans is top quality, though Barcaffe newly makes a special 100% Arabica blend), but Slovenes love it, and now I do, too. I’m also strangely drawn the Barcaffe’s dehydrated coffee pouches, with the ridiculously silly and politically-incorrect name “Black and Easy.” Planinski caj is also special and festive: I associate it served hot and sweet at the pop-up ice skating rinks that appear at Christmas time, and enjoyed after hikes, at the top of mountains. Slovene honey is justifiable famous, and goes so well with Planinski caj that it should be added to our gift box. While I can’t send entire meals to my friends abroad, I can send some spice mixes that they can use to throw them together. I like the pouches of spice mix for pleskavica and goulash, and the Yugoslav classic, Vegeta, which is extremely salty (it must be used in moderation), but is great to add umami flavor to any dish. I’m not sure I can taste the difference between various salts, but Piranski sol comes in beautiful containers (designed by a friend of mine), and makes an elegant gift. It’s even good on chocolate—there are many excellent Slovene chocolates, but my favorite is Cukrcek, particularly the dark chocolate topped with Piranski sol or with chili. Slovene buckwheat is renowned, featured in Slovenia Vodka (which would be tough to ship), but I can include ajdova moka and ajdova kasice, with instructions to make zganci (which I often accidentally refer to as zganje, as in “Sem dal ful zganje v moji obari-kolk je bilo dober!”) There are a variety of exotic candies, dating back to the Yugoslav days, some with names that I could not even publish in an Anglophone magazine, because I would risk being punched in the nose (I’m thinking candies invented by Pietro Negro, which innocently bear his surname). So I grab a selection of candies, like Bajadera, Ledene Kocke, Napolitanke, 505, Kiki and Bronhi (my 92 year-old American grandmother loves these). To top off the gift, I throw in copati. Foreigners think even the cheap, generic copati are great, and something new. Americans keep their shoes on inside the house, and so think it is exotic that Slovenes do not, always keeping a selection of copati to wear indoors, even extras for guests. After my wedding in Slovenia, my wife and I held a second wedding in the US, and we brought over around 50 pairs of copati to give out as gifts to the wedding guests. Copati are cheap, useful, and weigh nothing, so they are ideal for shipping.
I can already picture my Australian buddy wearing copati, spicing some goulash, with ajdova zganci (or zganje) boiling on the stovetop, while he eats some candies of politically-incorrect title. And if I pour some homemade schnapps in an empty plastic water bottle and send it over to Australia, let’s just hope no one at Customs notices.