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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
Photos by Christoph Haiderer.
This appeared in the June/July 2015 issue.