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Is Slovenia the World’s Next Great Food Destination?

The road to Nebesa, a resort in western Slovenia, was cratered for miles with the kind of potholes that could take down an armored vehicle. By the time I had navigated them all, my knuckles felt permanently clenched to the wheel. Through the fog and drizzle, I could make out a few cottages that had the silvery, weathered look of abandoned lobster shacks, and glimpsed a pair of hulking beasts that could have been bears. Upon closer inspection, after I parked my rental car, the beasts turned out to be two docile Newfoundlands and the cottages convivially inhabited. Stepping inside the largest one, I found myself in a cozy room illuminated by firelight. Ana Ros was behind the stove, her blonde ringlets moving in time as she vigorously stirred a cheese sauce. She spooned it over platefuls of polenta, poured a small estuary of fried pork fat over that, then sprinkled more cheese over the top. It was the kind of dish that makes your arteries flinch just to look at it.

slovenia mtnsThe next morning, I would awake to a surprise: Nebesa was not the damp, gray enclosure I had taken it to be but, rather, the most breathtaking mountain perch I had ever seen. Bright yellow light poured in through a window that framed snowcapped alpine peaks straight out of The Sound of Music. That shock did not compare to the one the night before, when I ate a spoonful of Ros’s corn-and-buckwheat polenta: The greasy, gloppy looking mush turned out to be rich and tangy, creamy and crunchy, sweet from the corn and smoky from the pork fat. It was plate-clearingly delicious, which, I would learn, is pretty much the norm in the Republic of Slovenia.

When one thinks about traveling for food, Slovenia does not leap to mind, and before I went, I could not name a single Slovenian dish. I’d heard rumors of a culinary revolution stirring in this Central European country wedged between Italy, Austria, Croatia, and Hungary. But  how would I recognize it? I presumed, somewhat accurately, as it turns out, that the cuisine was heavy on meat, cabbage, and mush. What I didn’t know is how delicious it would be, especially when chefs, including Ros, began riffing on those traditional Slovenian themes.

slovenia food 2“We didn’t have an aristocracy in Slovenia—no nobles, no kings. Our history is the history of peasants,” explained food-and-wine educator and magazine writer Tomaz Srsen over cold-extracted coffee in the modern Café Cokl in Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital. “There have been other influences—Austrian, Italian, Hungarian, Adriatic—but our traditional cuisine is peasant cuisine.” The problem, he continued, was a divide between urban and rural cultures that had cut off Slovenians from their culinary roots. In the city, diners went in for (mostly mediocre) versions of pizza, Chinese food, and other imports, while in the countryside, the traditional cuisine remained static.

“Now,” Srsen said, “there are a few places that are crossing the divide and upgrading the old dishes with modern techniques. You’ll see.”

A Perfect Prawn

Chandeliers, lace doilies, and a waiter who insisted on calling me madame made me fear the food at JB Restavracija would be dated. “I hope you are not in a hurry,” said the server at the sedate establishment in downtown Ljubljana. “Here, we go slow.” Yet chef Janez Bratovz’s cooking was vibrant, even zippy, warranting JB’s appearance on the 2010 list of the World’s 100 Best Restaurants. A dish called “shrimp scampi” bore zero relationship to the oil- and garlic-heavy plate of Italian-American renown; it was instead a single, intensely fresh prawn, caught that morning in the Adriatic and served with little more than a sauce made from an essence of its own shells. A polenta and cheese dish came topped with acerbic Gorizia radicchio, the bitter tang cutting beautifully through the richness. There was venison with dumplings, but there was also foie gras with black garlic. How—and why—did this all fit together? The question popped up at other places in Ljubljana, too, such as Na Gradu, located in the capital’s medieval castle, where I ate juicy octopus fried to a perfect crunch and served with, of all things, strawberries and an herbaceous pea puree. Was this modern? Traditional? I couldn’t figure it out.

Global Table

slovenia sceneDriving in the Soca Valley, about 40 miles northwest of Ljubljana, I was contemplating the nature of borders, both the physical ones that divide countries and the metaphysical ones that define styles. I passed an opaquely turquoise river and spotted cows so white and fluffy it took me a minute to register that they weren’t sheep. I saw tiny churches with soaring steeples that competed for sky space with the Alps behind them, and barns from which long braids of corn had been left hanging to dry. In a small, silent town, I followed handpainted signs to the local cheese maker, only to find him butchering a pig in his garage. At times, it felt like I was driving through a 19th-century landscape instead of a 21st-century one.

But then I had my second dinner with Ana Ros, in the countryside town of Kobarid. Eating her polenta at Nebesa (which is owned by her parents) had been a special event; her regular gig is at Hisa Franko, a small inn that she and her husband, Valter Kramar, inherited from his parents a little over a decade ago. At the time, Ros had never worked as a chef. “I hadn’t even set foot in a professional kitchen. And I was pregnant,” she recalls. “But I learned.”

slovenia food 3She certainly did. Dinner at Hisa Franko that night was so good that it was hard to believe she hadn’t spent her early 20s slaving away in a Michelin-starred galley somewhere. There were bright dandelion greens, just emerged in the springtime sun, that had been picked that day and battered; ramps emulsified into an electric green sauce to coat the sweet Slovenian mussels with an oniony earthiness; cod fried with a coating of ash, the pitch black exterior contrasting sharply with the pearly white interior; deer heart served with uni as well as roe from marble trout raised a few kilometers downstream. It was innovative and elegant and utterly delicious.

After dinner, I mentioned to Ros that, in Slovenia, I was having a hard time distinguishing between the old and the new, the traditional and the modern. She herself had served tangerine sauce with the marble trout, and black garlic with the pork neck. “Look,” she said. “I keep my feet on the ground with my cooking. The base is local, seasonal, Slovenian. But cooking is always about personality, and personality isn’t just where you grow up. It’s also where you travel, the people who influence you, the experiences you have. I went to Tanzania when I was 14 and encountered spices for the first time—cloves, cinnamon, cumin. That’s a part of me, too.”

Ros’s lack of dogma about what is authentically of a time and place was refreshing. As I set off the next morning, I thought about something she had said just before heading upstairs to bed: “You can be creative only after you’ve put in a lot of kilometers.”

Lakeside Idyll

slovenia waterDriving east from Kobarid through mountain passages, I came to Lake Bled, one of Slovenia’s most instantly recognizable spots. The lake—deeply blue and surrounded by more of those snowcapped peaks—is dominated by the church that sits on an island in its center. To get to the town, you must take a wooden boat called a pletna, navigated by oarsmen whose right to ferry passengers there was first granted by Empress Maria Theresa in the 18th century and has been passed on, generation to generation, ever since. It’s ridiculously picturesque, as long as you keep your eyes on the lake and mountains and away from the tacky souvenir shops, mini-golf courses, and Soviet-style hotels along the perimeter.

Most of the restaurant menus I perused in Bled were heavy on game meats and dumplings, but at Garden Village—a new eco-resort with luxury tree houses and tents, a self-cleaning swimming pool, and electric car-charging stations—something else was afoot. The restaurant’s tables were topped with plush squares of living grass, and its room dividers were planters of  herbs, creating a greenhouse feel. The fare was Slovenian standards given novel twists. Smoked trout, a typical appetizer, came prepared three ways: in a creamy pâté; layered in thin, glistening slices; and rolled in nori, sushi style. slovenia food garden villageThick, homemade ravioli were stuffed not with the cottage cheese so familiar elsewhere in Slovenia but with a smoky white bean puree, and were served in a kicky sauce with vegetables that retained their pleasing crunch. Meeting chef Dusan Jovanovic, I learned that he had joined the kitchen a mere week before I arrived, his previous position that of private chef for a government official. I asked him if his food was Slovenian. He was shy and clearly preferred to let his cooking do the talking. Finally, he simply smiled and said, “Think globally, act locally.”

Breakfast of Champions

I ate my last meal in Slovenia at Vila Podvin, an elegant restaurant on the grounds of a former castle on the outskirts of Lake Bled. Chef Uros Stefelin holds a weekly farmers’ market and is working to recover heirloom varieties such as the powerfully sweet and seedy tepka pear. In his dining room, he brings tradition forward with his food, as well: sturgeon served with wild garlic and hops and a gingery foam; dandelion soup drizzled with pumpkin oil. “My dishes must taste like they would have a hundred years ago,” Stefelin told me. “I don’t want to change the flavor of our ingredients. But the combination—how you put them together—that’s where the creativity lies.”

The proof was in the polenta. Lunch at Vila Podvin started with a small bowl of raw polenta topped by a centimeter-high disk that was brown on the outside, white on the inside. For a moment, I wasn’t sure how to eat it. Did I pick up the disk and take a bite? Cut it into smaller pieces? Surely I wasn’t meant to roll it in the uncooked grain? Fortunately, the waiter intervened. “Is Slovenian breakfast!” he beamed, and I realized that what I was looking at was an egg, the top third shaved off, the rest buried in the polenta. I dipped my spoon into it and tasted sweet cornmeal, rich egg, and crisp, bacony bits of fried pork fat. I had savored that particular combination before during my travels through Slovenia, but this version was more refined, more delicate. The thrill of discovery ran through me.

slovenia town“If you want a revolution, you have to lay the groundwork,” Ros had told me at Hisa Franko. “In Denmark, they had that by the time René Redzepi came along,” she said, referring to the chef at Noma, currently ranked best restaurant in the world. “We don’t have it yet.” Ros and food writer Tomaz Srsen played down the notion of their country becoming the next big culinary destination. But I had to wonder, is visiting Slovenia now like that time you went to Copenhagen hoping for a decent smørrebrød and discovered Noma’s fried reindeer lichen and musk ox tartare? Or when you went to Spain expecting to eat gazpacho and paella but found yourself at elBulli on the Catalan coast being served spherified olives and liquid-nitrogenized cotton candy? If a food revolution comes, doesn’t it look like a few inspired individuals, sparsely scattered around the country, doing very delicious things?

Photos by Christoph Haiderer.

This appeared in the June/July 2015 issue.